DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
30 January 1996

"GOOD TO GO" … WELL ALMOST

Peacekeeping missions are stretching the US Army to the breaking point. The Green Machine has soldiers deployed in Haiti, Kuwait, the Sinai, Macedonia, Northern Iraq, Saudi and a dozen other places around the globe.

Co. "A" 3d Bn., 5th Cav Regiment (The "Black Knights", is one of the most famous battle honored regiments in the U. S. Army. It has more battle campaigns under its pistol belt than most units have bayonets.) pulled a six month hitch in Macedonia and only returned last June. It's now slugging its way through the mud and cold of Bosnia. Many of it's soldiers have served in Haiti, Somalia and the Gulf in the last few years. Squad leader Sgt. John Cotton says "This is my third peacekeeping missions in the last three years. I have been with my family less than nine months in the last 36 months."

This kind of duty is tough on soldiers, combat readiness and families. A Sgt. says, "Now the Pentagon is talking about sending a US Army brigade to the Golan Heights. What's gonna be left to defend America when trouble comes our way?"

History repeats itself. In 1916, America did not have sufficient combat force to prevent Pancho Villa from raiding across our border, in 1939 we were again in the same sad shape and here it is in 1996, when we're spending almost 250 billion annually on defense and we're almost in the same fix.

It was a pitch black night last week when Sgt. Thomas E. Tomlin got the word over his CEV (Combat Engineer Vehicle -- an M-60 tank chassis with a plow) radio that "the lane was clear" and to "link up" through the Serb/Muslim minefield with "A" Company, 3d Bn., 5th Cav Regiment. He told his driver, PFC Andrew Ringbauer to "kick it in gear, move out cautiously and stay in the tracks of the tank in front of him" when he heard what every soldier in IFOR dreads: "a terrible boom" that rocked his 60 ton vehicle (ck wt). His loader, PFC Bradley J. Smith was standing in his open hatch, peering into the darkness, when he saw a "great flash from the right rear of the tank and then heard a loud boom." Smith was violently banged against the turret ring and immediately covered with dirt and explosive powder says "It smelled like cordite, as if our main gun had fired. I assumed my buddies were hit. It was pretty impressive... It added reality to what we're doing here." The gunner, Spec Alex Toirkens, deep inside the tank, says "I knew instantly what it was. The tank filled with smoke. We had 30 rounds of highly inflammable, bunker blasting ammo in the turret. I was worried about it cooking off." Ringbauer says "When the mine went off, I went on automatic: check self, check crew, check vehicle and check and see if there's any fires. All the training we've had saved us."

It was not only the hard and repetitive training they had that saved them but, a tanker's best friend: sheer luck. The heavy steel tank track was ripped off, flung in the air and turned into a pretzel. The tank's road wheels were sheared off and the hole in the ground from the explosion was almost big enough to stash a VW Beetle and no one bled. At the time, Leif and I were about 100 meters from the site, in the middle of the Zone of Separation between the Serbs and the Bosnian line, when we ran into a four vehicle traffic jam on the narrow, muddy road and were advised by our escort to "give it a miss as we were running out of light and try the next morning."

At first light, we slogged down the muddy track again. Passing through the vacated Serb positions which was a scene out of World War I: trenches, bunkers, fighting positions, mud up to your knees, duck boards or planks to walk upon, rats feeding in the trash carelessly abandoned by poorly disciplined troops, wall to wall mines covering the flat killing fields that once grew corn that stretched the 200 yards between the Serb and Muslim positions. It was here that for almost four years the two sides replayed the horror of Flanders Field. The track was just wide enough for a tank. It had been cleared by the Serbs who almost carelessly probed with long metal rods declaring it clear and then it was checked again by the U.S. engineers attached to Company "A."

Next giant Abrams tanks outfitted with a special one ton roller methodically rolled over the once gravel covered road that had not been used since the war kicked off. After all this, it was then given a "good to go" certification. Before Sgt. Smith's tank hit the mine several Abrams tanks had passed over that very spot several times. 1st Armored Division engineers reckon that water could have seeped into the plastic TMA4 Yugoslavian Army mine's fuse making it unreliable or that the pressure of the heavy tanks caused the mine to shift in the unstable ground where the water table is just six inches below the surface. As we were eyeballing the blast hole, a Serbian soldier called "Hawkeye" by his war buddies, knelt down a few feet from the hole and roughly dug with his finger and out popped three mine detonators of a second AT mine.

Hawkeye, living up to his moniker, kept digging and uncovered a third Anti Tank mine, all within a few feet of each other. All had been probed, swept, rolled over, walked over and not detected. 1st Sgt. Tony Stoneberger, the topkick of Company "A", says "This kind of drill only shows you just how goddamn dangerous it is, regardless of how careful you are. It's gonna be a long year." The newest kid on the block, a fresh replacement to Co. "A", Pvt. Carlos L. Hedgecorth says "Wow, this is a wild experience. I'm just 19 and I thought I was safe and I was standing only a foot away from a mine that can take out a Tank. I could have been shot to the moon."

The men of IFOR are finding that no system or no place is fail-safe from these nasty devices. Before this week was over another of Co. "A"s vehicles rolled over a mine on a road that was greenlighted. Again, no casualties other than the engineers' pride taking a beating. Stoneberger, who is a casting director's dream for the perfect, handsomely rugged, first sergeant with a long, jagged scar that runs from the top of his eye brow to the center of his cheek and whose ability to swear would put George Patton to shame, says "Thank God, no one was hurt. I intend to bring this company home with everyone we brought here and if I piss off a lot of people along the way for being tough, so be it!" I'd want my son to be in his outfit. IFOR has had about a dozen mine incidents so far. Yesterday, the veteran Swedes lost an armored vehicle and six soldiers were badly wounded.