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Sunday, March 30

Crew reflects on first Abrams tank deaths

By C. Mark Brinkley | Marine Corps Times

NEAR NASIRIYAH, Iraq - They are still kings of the battlefield, and until last week they were thought invincible.

No enemy fire ever had destroyed an Abrams tank, and no crew member had ever died fighting from one. But last week two of the 60-ton behemoths were destroyed by enemy fire and although those crew members survived, another Abrams crew has died in combat.

Sunday, Marine tankers had a break in the nonstop push north into Iraq. That gave them a chance to think about four friends, Marines who drowned in an Abrams tank Friday night when it drove off a bridge into the Euphrates River near Nasiriyah.

The tank was part of 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Tank Battalion, based in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Other tankers involved in that night mission said the accident happened after the unit moved on to a bridge and was told to stop and get some sleep. Later, tank crews were ordered to hurry up, get awake and get moving. These Marines believe the crew got lost in the dust kicked up by other tanks and simply drove off the side.

"We donít know exactly what happened," said Lance Cpl. Mark Rech, 20, a tank driver from Des Moines, Iowa. "We donít know if they were still sleepy or what."

Rech and the other Marines from his tank, nicknamed "Ring of Fire" in black paint on the main cannon, were friends of the fallen tank crew.

"For a while there, some of those guys were in our platoon," said Cpl. Brandon Carlson, 23, a tank gunner from Orlando, Fla. "We all knew each other."

And so the healing begins, as much as is possible here in the fertile crescent, where the tanks and their nearly impenetrable depleted-uranium hulls are leading most of the charges into battle.

"Thereís nothing we can do, not out here," Rech said. "I know that they wouldnít want us to be grieving. Itís sad."

The other crew members nod their heads in agreement, then Rech looks up from the ground.

"Itís very sad, sad for their families," Rech said. "I mean, your good friend, heís gone now."

It had been relatively smooth sailing for the members of the battalion since the war began with the unit storming through the Iraqi border town of Safwan. Early in the fog of combat, however, a Marine Cobra attack helicopter accidentally targeted a sister tank from Alpha Company, launching a Hellfire missile that rendered the Goliath useless.

All four tank crew members survived that blast, with one Marine receiving shrapnel wounds that are not life threatening.

"Weíre doing all right. I guess, in a way, you can expect things to happen," tank gunner Carlson said. "Itís not going to happen much."

In fact, most of the memories these Marines are taking away from the war so far are of Iraqi soldiers surrendering instead of fighting.

"As soon as they see tanks, or hear us, theyíre gone," Rech said.

Near Basra, an Iraqi general, colonel and lieutenant colonel all gave up to members of Charlie Company.

"They were calm," Rech said. "They wanted to surrender ÖI didnít expect them to be that compliant, to just come up and surrender."

The closest call the "Ring of Fire" had also was near Basra, they said, when two rocket-propelled grenades missed the tank by about 50 yards. Another tank was hit later, but the round only damaged the treads.

"Weíre fine," said Lance Cpl. Jesse Ibarra, 20, a loader from Gregory-Portland, Texas. "This is the safest thing out here.