GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. --
The hot war in Vietnam was winding down in Southeast Asia and I really had not planned to go into the military. Nevertheless, instead of being drafted, I enlisted. After nearly three years in the Reserves, I volunteered to go to West Germany on active duty. It was the height of the Cold War and the Army assigned me to a tank battalion, the 3rd Battalion, 68th Armored Regiment, 8th Infantry Division. Every September the battalion sent their battle tanks, the M60A1, by rail to the only major training area in Europe where the 105-milimeter main gun could be fired, the Grafenwöhr Training Area (Graf) near the Communist Czech border. The unit was always short of Military Occupational Specialty 11E armor crewmen. I was a 64C motor transport operator which meant we were trained to drive wheeled vehicles like jeeps, and trucks like the 1 ¼-ton, 2 ½-ton, five-ton and 10-ton semis, but not tanks.
At this time in the summer of 1973, my job was driving a jeep for the battalion executive officer Maj. Martin. One day, I got word to report to the battalion commander's office. Lt. Col. Friend sat behind his desk as I walked in. I stood at attention and reported. Colonel Friend indicated the battalion was once again short on 11Es and he expected me to serve on one of his tanks and go down range in it.
I thought about this for a split second. I had already had the Basic Combat Training course every Soldier goes through and then Advanced Individual Training in 64C, both at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Did I want to do on-the-job training on a tank? Once, I had climbed on an M60A1 tank just to see what it was like. They were loud, stinky, and probably very uncomfortable to serve on.
"Sir, that is not in my MOS," I replied. This was a very dumb thing for an E-2 to say to an O-5 then or anytime.
"Barr, what do you want to be when you grow up?" asked Friend.
"Sir, I sort of planned on being a writer." I had just turned 22.
Friend had an answer for this, "Barr you won't even be a man if you don't serve on my tank."
"Yes, Sir!" I said. "What will I do and how long will I have to be on the tank?"
Friend said I would drive Martin to the major training area and still be his driver when I was not training on the tank. I would train as a loader (the guy who puts the 105-milimeter rounds in the tank's main gun). When the crew and I were ready after a few weeks on various gunnery ranges, we would participate in a Tank-Crew Proficiency Course (TCPC) on the foreboding "Range 80."
The same training is called a Tank-Crew Qualification Course today. It was and still is the climax of training for a tank crew. When you passed it, you were adjudged to be combat ready. That was what it was all about when NATO's 30,711 tanks faced the Warsaw Pact's 70,700 tanks.
Well, it ended up that I went downrange at Graf that September and the next two Septembers as well. In between Grafs, I still drove jeep for Martin for all other training and exercises. We were in the field more than 180 days every year. I was proud to be a 64C. But there was also a bit of satisfaction knowing that if the balloon went up, I would probably serve as a loader in lieu of a real 11E. Martin would be a tank commander and maybe I would be his loader.
That October, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and several other countries went to war against Israel. This conflict is known to history as the Yom Kippur War, the Ramadan War, or simply the October War. The 3/68th went on alert and some of our guys drove their fuel trucks to Ramstein and parked them on the flightline ready to load them on an Air Force plane and fly to Israel on a moment's notice. This was part of what was called Operation Nickel Grass. Operation Nickel Grass was an American airlift to replace Israel's supplies and other material losses. Thank goodness we did not have to do it because the October War ended after almost three weeks.
Most likely I would have grown up without serving on one of Friend's tanks. But, I probably wouldn't have had the experience that happened the next spring. Once again, Friend asked me to report to his office. His driver was ill so he wanted me to drive him in my jeep to our alert area where his tank and some others would be assembled. A distinguished visitor and his escort would be choppering in to pay us a staff visit.
That afternoon Friend and I rode out to the alert area and approached his tank. The colonel explained to me that I was to park next to the tank so the DV could climb on the jeep in order to get on the tank. Before long, three helicopters landed not far from where we were waiting.
Friend approached and saluted the four-star that dismounted the chopper with several other officers. As the general got closer I couldn't believe my eyes. The name patch on his uniform read "Abrams." It was Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, one of the armor commanders that relieved the 101st Airborne at Bastogne during WWII. Gen. George Patton said of him, "I'm supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army, but I have one peer -- Abe Abrams. He's the world champion." When I saw him, General Abrams was the Army Chief of Staff, and he was standing right next to my jeep!
"Sir, I have asked my driver to park the jeep next to my tank so you may climb on it and inspect my tank," Friend said to the general.
"Colonel," the general said, "I've been around tanks for over 30 [expletive deleted] years and I don't need to inspect your [expletive deleted] tank."
"Yes, sir," replied Friend.
Abrams did a walk-about with Friend and spoke to several of the other officers and men. When the general re-boarded his helicopter and flew away, everyone standing on the ground stood at attention, looked at the aircraft, and saluted. Abrams died just a few months later in September 1974 and in 1980 the M60 was replaced with the M-1 Abrams main battle tank.
There is no doubt in my mind that I would not have had that experience if I had stood my ground and refused to go downrange at Graf in one of Friend's tanks. The colonel would have written me off. When I decided to serve as a loader, I had no idea how many hours would be spent humping ammo, riding to ranges both day and night, and loading the main gun by hand with its 105-milimeter rounds. But, the decision seemed right at the time and it seems right now. Would I ever become a writer? I didn't know, but I still planned on being one.
When making plans in everyday life, at a certain point one realizes decisions are not always simply made. Options are not usually between either/or, or black and white, but from a continuum of choices. Once choices are made, it requires a great deal of intestinal fortitude to see them to fruition. And if there is any certainty in life, it is that things change and require making tough adjustments. To paraphrase the 19th century German Gen. Helmuth von Moltke, "No plan survives contact with the enemy."
I am often reminded of a quote from "The Secret History of the World" by Mark Booth:
"Again, it is the common, if not universal human experience, that if we try to work out what is the right thing to do with our lives using all our intelligence, if we work at it with a good and whole heart, if we exercise patience and humility, we can just discern the right thing to do. And once we have made the right decision, the chosen course of action will probably require all the willpower we are capable of, perhaps for just as long as we are able to bear it, if we are to complete it successfully. This is right at the core of what it means to experience life as a human being."
So, no matter what you plan on doing in the Air Force, in your later career, and in life, be prepared to make adjustments to what comes along. You may be asked to serve in the wing staff, to deploy, or be assigned somewhere you never dreamed of going. The fact is that what may happen to you in that moment may not be the greatest thing in the world but it can lead to something better in the future. Even so, remember the immortal words of Ringo Starr, "It don't come easy."