MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
Weighing more than 70 tons and still capable of keeping up with most vehicles on a highway while accurately firing high-explosive rounds up to 4,000 meters away, the M1A1 Abrams tank is a force unlike anything else on a battlefield. It would be a frightening thought to imagine several of these war machines in one place, employing all of their firepower in a competition with one another.
It’s that exact thing that Staff Sgt. Peryck Smith and his tank crew look forward to twice a year during the Marine Corps’ biannual Gunnery Qualification event.
Smith, a Jacksonville, Fla., native, is the platoon sergeant for 3rd Platoon, Company A, 2nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, as well as the tank commander for Blue 4, the name given to the fourth tank of 3rd Platoon.
“The Gunnery Qual(ification) is a huge deal for every tanker in the Marine Corps,” said Smith. “It’s an event that only happens twice a year that grades crews on their time and performance while operating all of the key functions of the M1A1. Aside from the bragging rights, the tank crew that scores the highest is officially recognized by their command in the form of a (Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal).”
To perform well at the qualification event, the tankers have to be in sync with one another to near perfection, knowing each move the others are going to make and working together to operate the hulking, steal giant they fight from. It’s exactly the kind of tight relationship that initially drew Smith to the tank battalion in the first place.
“When I was 11 years old, I saw the Silent Drill Platoon perform, and since then I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a Marine,” said Smith. “In 1996, when I turned 17, I enlisted into the Corps as an infantryman. I wanted to be one of the guys kicking in doors, and for my first four years in the Marine Corps, that’s exactly what I did. It was an incredible experience to be a part of the Marine infantry family, but when it was getting close to the time for me to re-enlist, I got the chance to see a tank unit train and talk with the tankers.”
Smith quickly realized, after doing some research, becoming a tanker was the next level of camaraderie and combat effectiveness that drew him to the Marine Corps.
“I wanted to be a part of a small, effective unit in the combat (operations) field. Seeing the way the Marines operating a tank worked together to complete the mission, I saw a lot of similarities between them and the rifle squads I’d spent years serving in,” said Smith. “I love being a part of a tank crew. For me, there’s no better job out there.”
A tank crew consists of four different positions: the tank commander, a driver, a loader and a gunner. Smith considers his crew a part of his family and they, in return, echo his sentiments.
“Tank crews do everything together all the time. It’s impossible for us not to see each other as family, and when it’s roll out time, that bond serves an important purpose,” said Lance Cpl. Thomas Curley, gunner for Blue 4, 3rd Platoon. “On the inside of the tank, it’s my job to work the main gun and pull the switch that fires the round. For that to happen I have to rely on guidance from my tank commander, Staff Sergeant Smith, to help get me on target. I have to trust that my loader is going to get the right round into the chamber in time for me to hit my target while the driver keeps us moving and helps give me a steady platform to shoot from. We all trust each other as much as we would a member of our real families. The tank would just be a useless tool without a crew capable of working together to operate it.”
The Long Island, N.Y ., native has only been working with Smith for a few months, but says he couldn’t imagine following anyone else. Smith, as a platoon sergeant, is responsible not only for the crew of Blue 4, but also the rest of the platoon. He said every crew he’s been a part of has been irreplaceable.
“There are two things that every tank commander needs to master,” said Smith. “The first thing that needs to be perfected is the commander’s knowledge of every part of the tank and every function it has. The other thing that has to be mastered is the tank’s crew. Knowing the ins and outs of everything involving the Marines in the crew makes it easier for the commander to lead his Marines, which turns the tank into the battlefield force of reckoning, precision weapon it was designed to be.”