Episode 1: Abrams Tank

At Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army post in El Paso, Texas, Richard worked alongside First Lieutenant Jefferson Kent, Platoon Leader for 2nd Platoon, Sergeant First Class Ryan D. Dilling, Sergeant Zachary C. Shaffer, Specialist Emmanuel Vasquez and Private First Class Gabriel Wyman. Below, find out what it’s like working with the Abrams Tank on a daily basis and what they learned from Richard during filming.

What is a typical day is like at Fort Bliss?
1st. Lt. Kent (Platoon Leader for 2nd Platoon): Depending on the season, we usually start up in the morning, about 6:30 is our first formation, so we all arrive here much earlier than that. We do an hour of physical training, then we get a little bit of a break, get a shower and get on our uniforms for the day. Each day, our tasks change from what our upcoming mission is. Sometimes we’re doing actual military training during the day, while other days we’re doing admin work, getting ourselves ready for the next big field problem. And when we’re out in the field we’re usually practicing tactics, maneuvering our tanks, working on the platoon and company levels, and sometimes even battalion. It’s our job to always be ready to deploy and to stay qualified.

When you’re working with the Abrams Tank, what would you say is the biggest challenge? What do you love about it versus other vehicles that you have trained with?
Sgt. 1st Class Dilling (Tank Commander): The greatest thing about them, being in the military and being on the battlefield, I wouldn’t want to be on any other piece of equipment other than a tank. They pretty much rule the battlefield as far as armament and armor. There’s very little that is out there that we may face that will totally destroy it. And the fire power that comes with the tank. The greatest challenges I guess would be maintaining them. With the tanks that we have, there are a lot of computer components on the inside so you have to conduct proper maintenance with those regularly and with the tank, also, just mechanical maintenance and stuff like that. If you take care of it, it will definitely take care of you.

And at top speed, how fast can it go?
Sgt. 1st Class Dilling: It all depends on the terrain that you’re in. Through rough terrain, obviously you’re going to take it a little slower. You’re looking at 25-30 miles per hour maybe max. When you get out on a flat surface, and your engine is good and your tank is running right, you can probably get up to 40-45 miles per hour. But that’s about the top speed you really want to go. You go any faster than that, you’re going to start having problems with the track. There also is a governor that is placed on the engine so you don’t surpass speed because it will mess up the engine.

Do you think there are any misconceptions about what it takes to learn these tanks?
Sgt. 1st Class Dilling: A lot of people see these tanks and other Army vehicles on television and in movies, but what’s really not shown is the amount of effort and the amount of time that’s put in to maintain them and to take care of them to stay mission-capable.

When inside the tank, you’re in a small space when maneuvering with the tank. How do you get used to that small space when driving these tanks?
Spc Vasquez (Tank Driver): I’m not claustrophobic, but I did have to get used to the small space. It’s just getting comfortable with yourself in there. Other than that, I’m in the driver’s hole and I don’t have anyone with me so it’s just about communicating with the rest of the crew and always having something to drink, sometimes a snack or something when you’re in there for hours at a time.

What’s the longest you’ve been in that space?
Spc. Vasquez: It always depends on the mission. Sometimes, it can be an hour or two hours, sometimes it can be up to six or seven hours at a time. Fortunately for me, I don’t recall ever going more than five or six hours without being able to get out and get fresh air. Some days, you can go a whole day just being inside the tank, but you do get a five-minute span to get out, use the latrine and then get back in there.

Has anyone ever experienced a strange blunder or mishap when working with the tank?
Pfc. Wyman (Tank Loader): I had something happen during a gunnery training session. While in the turret with Sgt. Dilling and Sgt. Shaffer, we had to do an NBC (Nuclear, Biological, or Chemical) engagement where we had to close the hatches and put our gasmasks on. I had a bit of trouble taking my gasmask off after the engagement and I started to freak out a little bit. Initially, when I stand up on the turret floor, I can see over the hatch. It was starting to get really warm and I wasn’t able to get my gasmask off and I was just really cramped and started to feel a little claustrophobic. I took a couple deep breaths and I was finally able to get my mask off, so I was fine after that.

Did any of you deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan or any other areas where you’ve used the Abrams Tank away from Fort Bliss?
Sgt. 1st Class Dilling: I deployed three times with the tanks. My first deployment was back in 2000-2001 when I went to Kosovo. My second deployment with the tanks was to Iraq in 2003-2004. My third deployment with the tanks also, was to Iraq in 2005-2006. Sgt. Shaffer has also deployed with the tanks.

Sgt. Shaffer: Yeah, I deployed in 2006-2007 with the tanks. But Sgt. Dilling probably has more experience on the tanks in a combat zone than I do. When I was over there, we had humvees and tanks, but we just used the tanks for over-watch missions and route clearance for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device).

Sgt. 1st Class Dilling: Like Sgt. Shaffer said, we had the tanks plus humvees, but my first deployment we used the humvees for a good amount of the time. We were in the middle of Baghdad the first time I was in Iraq. So, the tanks really weren’t that effective being inside the city just for maneuverability down the city streets and around the buildings. Later in the deployment, we got out of the city and went down south a little bit. For about four and half, maybe five months that’s all we operated off of were the tanks. The second time I was there, that’s all we used.

Moving on to ‘Richard Hammond’s Crash Course.’ What did you think about this British guy coming in and wanting to take on the Abrams tank? Did you think he could come in and master that in three days?
Pfc. Wyman: Absolutely not. I didn’t think that he had a chance at all, really. Basic training is nine weeks and that’s just breaking us down from the civilian lifestyle and learning how to take orders and doing what we’re told from the higher ranking individuals. Once we get passed that, we get to be on the tank and we spend at least another two-and-a-half months going down to the motor court every day, working with the tanks, having instructors teaching us what to do and what not to do, how to fix them if something breaks and constantly reading these technical manuals, troubleshooting and more. So yes, I didn’t think there was any chance that he would be able to master anything in just three days when we had to spend that much time.

How did Richard prove you wrong?
Spc. Vasquez: When he first got here, I thought he was going to be horrible with the driving. He did slam on the brakes a couple of times and the crew wasn’t too happy about that, but he proved me wrong. He did a decent job running over the cars and just driving around.

What did you learn from your experience having Richard at Fort Bliss? Do you have any favorite memories that stand out in your mind from that experience?
Sgt. 1st Class Dilling: I thought it was pretty cool just to meet the guy. With his status, he can pretty much go anywhere and somebody will recognize who he is. That was probably one of the coolest things for me, let alone spending a couple of days with him. Just being able to show him what we do during our day-to-day, that was great.

Episode 1: Abrams Tank