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General Lee Returns

From Captain Krauss:

The mission of the infantry is often defined as closing with the enemy by means of fire and maneuver to defeat or capture him, or to repel his assault by fire, close combat, and counterattack.  Defeating the enemy often means killing him, an act that is unnatural to about 99.9% of us.  To overcome this, the military trains to objectify the enemy making it easier to engage him in combat.  We qualify with our individual weapons by shooting at green human-shaped targets called “Ivans.”  We train for close quarters combat by engaging silhouette targets that resemble the outline of a human torso with the vital organs highlighted in a bright color.  In World War II, Soldiers referred to their enemy as “Krauts” or “Japs.”  Curiously though, while we in some ways objectify our enemy, many Soldiers personify their instruments of war.  While making the enemy a little less human, we make the weapons meant to do the job more human.  You’d be hard pressed to find an infantryman who hasn’t given his trusty M-4 a pretty name.  Me, I was always fond of “Consuela.”  Don’t ask why; it just seemed to fit.  Bomber pilots in World War II often painted pin-up models on their aircraft before embarking on missions.  For me, it was my trusty M1134 Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) Stryker variant that took on a life of its own.

Officially known by the bumper number “AT-21”, The General Lee has become infamous as a sort of poster child for the Army’s highly successful Interim Armored Vehicle concept.  For me and the rest of my crew, it was more than just hydraulic fluid and ceramic armor.  It was a member of our team; a trusty steed that took us into combat day in and day out without complaint.  In the fall of 2006, then-sergeant Dan Walwark thought AT-21 needed a name, and General Lee seemed to fit the personality of the crew.  We were a tight little group that liked to drive fast and enjoyed getting into a little trouble now and then.  Our motto “I wanna go fast!” was borrowed from the Will Ferrel movie “Talladega Nights”.  When we christened the General, it was with a stencil carved out of an MRE box with a rusty Leatherman.  Little did we know that pictures of the wounded General would make their way to the front page of

For more than eight months, we drove thousands of miles in the General, criss-crossing Iraq from the Syrian border to Mosul and Baghdad with many stops in between.  Slowly, the General took on a personality of his own.  For instance, we took great pride in having what we believed was the fastest ramp of any Stryker in Iraq.  It could go down and come back up faster than most ramps could just go down.  This might seem trivial until a decent sniper is zeroing in on your location and getting inside your Stryker and getting that armored ramp between you and him is about all that matters.  I guarantee our driver – SPC William Pfeiffer – could get the General in and out of places it was never meant to go.  They had some kind of connection that only comes from spending hour after hour in the driver’s seat.  During his time with us, the General protected us from three IED strikes, a direct hit from an RPG, and about half a dozen small arms engagements.  Giving AT-21 a name somehow made him more reliable in each of those incidents.  The effect is intangible, but somehow it encouraged my crew to put a little extra time into the maintenance of the General, almost as if they knew he’d return the favor.  We trusted the General to get us where we needed to go both quickly and safely.  For those who have read Michael Yon’s article “Superman,” you know he did the job admirably.

Last spring, I got word that the General Lee was back in Ft. Lewis with our sister company in another Stryker Brigade.  I went to their motor pool to see the General.  I’m not sure why, but I felt like seeing the General would give me some closure.  I made it home and it was important to me to see that the General did too.  Sadly, the motor pool was closed.  Looking through the fence, it was hard to tell which of the nine ATGMs was the General Lee until I spotted one that looked just a little different.  There, right on the side of the missile launcher, in the very spot we had crudely christened him almost two years before, was a neatly stenciled “General Lee.”  It was much straighter than it had been, and all the letters were even the same size, but seeing it brought back quite a few memories of what I had been through with that vehicle.

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to the Anniston Army Depot in Alabama with my former crew-mate SGT Devon Hoch.  We were invited there to tour the very facility where battle damaged Strykers like the General Lee were carefully and expertly repaired and sent back to Iraq.  We had the honor of shaking hands with the very workers who spent hours painstakingly welding, wiring, and outfitting the General Lee so that he would be just as trustworthy for the next crew lucky enough to ride him into battle.  Anyone who ever has the opportunity to see what goes on at Anniston and the hard work put in there should definitely take it.  Those folks at Anniston are some of the most patriotic and hardest working I have ever met.  The work they do there to support of Soldiers on the tip of the spear in Iraq and Afghanistan can not receive enough recognition.  Like I told them at Anniston, we couldn’t do the things we do over there without knowing how much support there is for us back here.

So what does personifying the weapons of war do for a Soldier?  In the same way that objectifying the enemy makes the job more bearable, maybe giving my M-4 a name makes the job a little easier too.  It builds trust and respect.  Naming the General made him part of the team.  In the same way that those courageous pilots and crews of World War II flew their pin-up adorned planes into combat time after time, infantrymen continue to ride their Abrams, HMMWVs, Strykers, and MRAPs out into combat believing that it will bring them home safely.  As long as there is war and conflict, Soldiers will give their instruments of war various names and go into combat with a little comfort knowing they are not going alone.

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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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