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Monday, August 1, 2011

San Diego: A Wild Time at Camp Pendleton!

My son Demetri (DT) is 15 and has been talking about the Marines lately. My good friend, decorated Marine (Silver Star, Purple  Heart) and author Nick Popaditch (Once a Marine) accommodated my request for a favor by pulling strings and getting us onto Camp Pendleton this past weekend. His son Nick Jr. went with us.  

The day before we went to the Recruit Depot and watched recruits learning to jump off towers and rappel, learn various maneuvers, and others who were now official Marines in their dress uniforms with moms proudly hanging on their arms. It was inspiring.

The next morning we drove 30 or so miles to Camp Pendleton, and then to a small area where a group of of reserve M1A1 battle tanks (six or eight) were parked and being worked on. We watched as mechanics and others cleaned, repaired, and otherwise maintained them and the support vehicles needed to keep them moving. We spent some time inside a tank learning the basics about each position, how the gun worked, where the shells were stored, and so forth. Each tank carries four people (Commanding officer, gunner, loader, and driver).

Gunnery Sergeant Pittsley (left) and Gunny Pop (right).
Gunny Sgt. Pittsley arranged for a ride, and it took quite some time and effort to prepare a tank to move. They didn't have to do it, but really did it for Gunny Pop. He is well known and a legend in the Corps--as more than one Marine told me without any prompting from Pop's proud publisher.
A very tired and aging publisher up in the Loader's hatch, taken by DT from his position in the Gunner's seat.

DT in Gunner's position with Com helmet and flak jacket on, thermal and regular sights next to his head, and gun and turret controller to his front. He is flashing the V for Victory sign after being complimented by Corporal Bath.
The view outside the tank from my position in the Loader's hatch.
In a word: wow.
Once all was ready, the tank fired up (they are incredibly quiet) and moved about 30 yards to a gate, where DT and I climbed aboard. Corporal Bath served as the Commander, and took a position in the Commander's hatch next to the 50-caliber machine gun mount. I assumed the Loader's position to his left, and instead of remaining inside, stood up through the open hatch to see outside. DT sat down in the right front of the tank to serve as the Gunner. He got to traverse the turret at speed, move the gun up and down, use various sites (thermal, etc.) and more. The driver is in the front of the tank and out of site, locked up tight in a small area that would have driven me crazy.

Corporal Bath giving orders to his 15-year-old Gunner.

The ride was about 40 minutes, up and down hilly terrain, through high weeds, etc. It was scary, exhilarating, and like a massive shot of adrenalin all at the same time. To show how the gun optics work, we sited on a truck on a freeway maybe 2 miles distant, tracking the vehicle with a laser that kept the tube locked on target even as we moved. It was incredible.

I tried the gun position for five minutes and could barely operate the thing. I also got very nauseous because everything is right in front of you and bouncing around like crazy. When I moved back to the Loader's position, Corporal Bath laughed and said that when that happens in the field, we hand them an MRE bag and spin the tank until new gunners puke, and puke again. And again. "Eventually they get over it," he laughed. "Can't have a sick gunner."

We had communication helmets on, and could easily speak back and forth. Video games have their place, I guess. Corporal Bath gave orders to DT (center the gun over the front, etc.) or "Fix on XYZ target." DT did it easily and quickly. Corporal Bath complimented him and said he was very surprised he could do it so easily and quickly. "You would make a great gunner," he told my son. DT looked up at me and flashed the V for victory sign. (see photo).

The final day (Saturday) we spent on the water. First, we spent an hour packing care packages for troops at Veteran's Memorial Hall in Balboa Park. That was a great experience as well. Every young American should try it. My niece Alyssa, who lives in San Diego, joined us for this part of the trip.

DT boxing it up. When all was said and done, he filled 10 boxes and taped up dozens more.

DT and Gunny Pop on Pop's boat getting ready to tube out on the ocean. Priceless.
DT holding on for dear life. Somehow he held on despite Pop's best efforts to throw him. Eventually he pitched headlong into the sea.

Ted Savas and Gunny Pop at "Club Pop" (read his book to understand that), enjoying steaks, cigars, and great beer.
Our day included fishing, tubing, and general sightseeing. It was a grand day all the way around. The night before we had a great dinner at the Popaditch house (thanks April!).

Thanks Popaditch's and USMC for a great visit to San Diego. It is one we will never forget.

-- tps