Tank crews prep for armor showdown at Benning
“They covered the desert to the right and left, ahead and behind as far as we could see, trailing their eager dust tails behind. It was almost as though some official starter had fired his blank pistol. The battle was on.” — Ernie Pyle
Training Range Red Cloud Alpha at Fort Stewart is well-forested by Georgia pines and well-inhabited by deer, bobcat, alligators and wild boar.
And during the first week of April it was plenty noisy. That’s because two lumbering M1A2 Abrams tanks from the 64th Armor Regiment warfighting inventory were having a shootout to decide who would represent the 3rd Infantry Division in the 2016 Sullivan Cup competition
The competition, which kicked off May 1 at Fort Benning, Georgia, is a biennial tussle that determines the best four-man tank crew among 18 teams from the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Canadian Forces, Germany and Australia.
The event is named after armor officer and retired Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon Sullivan, with 2016 marking the third running of the competition. “I’m still not certain that I deserve this honor, “he demurred during the taping of the event’s welcome message, “but I’m real proud of it.”
For Brig. Gen. Scott McKean, the Army’s chief of armor and official host for this gathering of iron horses, the Sullivan Cup name was a natural choice. “The competition embodies its namesake,” he said. “General Sullivan commanded numerous armor formations throughout his storied career (and) his commitment to armor exemplifies the spirit of our Soldiers.”
Back at Fort Stewart, “The Rock of the Marne” (3rd ID’s famous moniker saluting the Division’s World War I heroics in France) has a combat-seasoned tanker who holds the billet of Abrams master gunner. He is Sgt. 1st Class Todd Poisson of Saco, Maine, and it was his job to make the tough call: Who goes to the Sullivan?
The crews’ parent command, the “Desert Rouges” of 1st Battalion, had earlier pared possible candidates down to two crews before placing them in Poisson’s hands for six intense weeks of individual and unit testing that ran the gamut.
For starters, the three-tour Iraq War veteran treated his Sullivan Cup aspirants to the 1974 Armor physical fitness test which included an ammunition lift, road wheel roll, track block shuffle and a tow cable drag – from the prone position. Those wind-sucking delights were capped by a one-mile run; and it’s all done in the duty uniform with boots.
Individual effort in the obstacle course and armor proficiency tests followed, along with both mounted and dismounted land navigation during both darkness and daylight hours. The Soldiers were also challenged by tactical combat casualty drills and they conducted simulated maneuver training in the state-of-the-art Close Combat Tactical Trainer.
Add to that repeated call-for-fire iterations and crew-level live-fire gunnery (including operating in equipment-degraded mode) and it’s easy to see why the crews slept with their tanks and were grateful to snag a quick MRE most days during this custom-tailored run-up to the Sullivan.
April 21, it was time to tally the scores.
“I computed the empirical data, I had crew members cross-train and we pushed ‘em through several of the kinds of scenarios you really don’t want to have happen on the battlefield – but will happen,” said Poisson.
The winners rode a tank dubbed “Count Trackula,” commanded by Staff Sgt. Justin Fauntleroy of Alpharetta, Georgia, and crewed by gunner Sgt. Cy Corona of Hanapepe, Hawaii; driver Spc. Sean Martin, born in Kaiserslautern, Germany; and loader, Spc. Donte Felton, a native of Freeport, Illinois.
“The Trackula crew had a little bit more cohesion,” said Poisson. “They’d been together longer. But what really impressed me was their drive. It was the kind of drive that every damn Soldier should aspire to.”
Their leader Fauntleroy set the tone, and he jumped at the chance to go tanks when he first enlisted in the Army. “The machine itself, 72 tons combat-loaded, it’s audacious,” he said.
“No matter what happens at Benning,” said Fauntleroy, “my Soldiers and I learned so much in just preparing for the Sullivan. It’s a win-win-win.
“And when any of us makes master gunner,” he added, “we’ll pass it along.”
By design, the armor leadership within the division saw the trials as valuable training, a fact that the runners-up appreciated, said Poisson. The command “resourced us generously” for the six-week iteration, Poisson explained. “Every tanker out here got to take full advantage of the ammo, the range time and some outside-the-box situations,” he said. “It was awesome.”
The alternate 3rd ID reps and their tank, “Cannonarchy,” were commanded by Sgt. 1st Class Roy Smith of Canfield, Ohio.
Crew members were gunner Sgt. Brandon Chapais of Kalamazoo, Michigan; driver Spc. William Bates from Prattville, Alabama; and loader Pfc. Matthew McLain of Boonville, Mississippi.
Smith said that all seven of his fellow tankers at Red Cloud Alpha showed great spirit and work ethic. “They are outstanding Soldiers and great Americans,” he said. “It’s a real testament to who they are. They are the ones who do our nation’s bidding in time of war.”
“We are living the dream,” Smith continued, “and we are surrounded by good people.”
As the “four horseman” from the Count Trackula crew headed west to Fort Benning, they knew their biggest fans would be the Cannonarchy tankers, disappointed but unbowed – and part of an armor family culture that is as tight today as it was when 2nd Lt. Gordon Sullivan was commissioned.
In fact, when Master Gunner Poisson checks in for armor instructor duty at Fort Benning this summer, he’ll be replaced in that key role by “somebody I already respect and admire” – Cannonarchy tank commander, Sgt. 1st Class Smith.
To learn more about the Sullivan Cup, visit http://www.benning.army.mil/armor/sullivan/Overview.html. Take a look at more Sullivan Cup action on Facebook and Twitter.