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Kings of the Tank

When the barrel smoke cleared at the 2016 Sullivan Cup competition, it was a North Carolina Guard team that rolled away with the coveted prize. Meet the winning crew—and go inside the beast they call home.
Photos by Justin Cook, SFC Jon Soucy
Photos by Justin Cook, SFC Jon Soucy

On the heels of the National Guard’s historic wins at the All-Army Small Arms Championship in March and Best Ranger Competition in April, four tankers from North Carolina’s 1/252nd Armor Regiment, 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team (“Old Hickory”), set their sights on capturing a third major title for Citizen-Soldiers: Best Tank Crew.

The Sullivan Cup would push competitors to their physical and mental brink over six grueling days, testing them on everything from land navigation and maintenance to casualty care and gunnery skills. Sixteen teams from across the Active Army, National Guard, Marines and Royal Canadian Army assembled in May at Fort Benning, GA, ready to rumble.

For the Old Hickory crew, the odds were not in their favor. First, their aging M1A2 Abrams lacked the upgraded targeting technology found in the models their Active Duty counterparts brought to battle. Plus, the team was assembled mere weeks before the competition, a decided disadvantage in a contest where cohesion is key.

But these are no ordinary warriors. And when they took up their positions in the tank on the event’s opening day, they were prepared for anything. With training and teamwork, precision and power, the North Carolina crew blew away the competition, proving again that the Guard is ready, willing and able to lead the fight.

This photo essay (with video at the end) allows a rare glimpse inside their “office”—cramped quarters, dim and sweltering. But allow your eyes to adjust and you’ll see beyond the clutter of indicators and instruments, metal and machine. What’s revealed is an elaborate domain, ruled by four expert tankers whose individual and collective roles are equally critical to mission success.

This is where the winning crew—First Lieutenant John Dupre, Specialist Brandon Sinor, Sergeant Curtis Bowen and Specialist Philip Hill—went to work on a challenge as immense, and with a will as unyielding, as the Abrams itself. 

This is where they unleashed the beast.

Don’t Tread on Them

The Sullivan Cup put the crew of the C-HAG (their tank’s unofficial call sign) through its paces in every facet of Abrams operation. Gunnery challenges tested their ability to acquire and destroy multiple targets—including troops, personnel carriers and other tanks—at a distance of 500–2,500 meters, both in the light of day and the dead of night. Hill, the driver, says the contest’s toughest event was the final shoot-off: “We had no advance knowledge of what it would involve, which put worry in all our heads.” In the end, each crew was given 18 targets. “We did the best we could,” Hill says. And their best turned out to be better than the rest; the North Carolina crew destroyed 13 targets to clinch the competition.

Eyes on the Prize

One of the world’s premier tanker events, the annual Sullivan Cup competition draws elite crews from the Army’s Active and Reserve Components, the Marines, and military forces from Canada, Australia and Germany. More than a gunnery contest, the six-day competition pushes tankers past their limits in a variety of physical events, demands tremendous mental focus in realistic simulator-based challenges and requires crews to put actual steel on target in range operations. Teamwork is paramount for every event.


1LT JOHN DUPRE

Role: Tank Commander (TC)


Years in Guard: 4


Civilian Job: Insurance claims adjuster

As TC, Dupre shoulders a heavy burden; he’s responsible for disciplining, training and unifying his crew, maintaining their weapons and equipment, and he’s ultimately the one who answers to his commander for the team’s achievements or failures. Being a control freak is his job. From his vantage point in the turret behind Bowen (the gunner), Dupre oversees the Abrams’ every move—monitoring its systems and position, surveying the battlefield through periscopes and a thermal night vision viewer, directing his crew and communicating with other TCs. Confidence and trust are imperative. Without them, the delicate symbiosis he must maintain with his crew will crumble. They trust Dupre’s technical expertise, sound judgment and split-second decisiveness; he trusts their ability to execute his commands consistently, flawlessly and with no questions asked. This faith is as much a part of the Abrams’ lifeblood as the 500 gallons of fuel it holds. “Achieving competence and trust in your fellow crewmen breeds a brotherhood that allows the TC to focus on tactically maneuvering the vehicle, maintaining a high level of situational awareness and responding appropriately to the developing tactical environment,” Dupre says. 


 Left: Weapon Station Sight – Daytime, thermal or .50 cal sights enable TC to lock in on targets. Right: Weapon Station Control Handle – Allows for powered traverse of TC’s cupola and controls elevation to lay sights on target with the M2 .50 cal machine gun. 

Solid Foundation

An Abrams crew comprises four critical positions: tank commander, loader, gunner and driver. After being selected to compete, Dupre, Sinor, Bowen and Hill had to integrate seamlessly into one team. Although each had experience as members of the 1/252nd, they didn’t start training together until a few weeks before the event. And they didn’t jell right off the bat. “We butted heads a few times,” Bowen says. “But we eventually learned how each guy liked things done. After we got those issues worked out, we worked well together.”


SPC BRANDON SINOR

Role: Loader


Years in Guard: 4

Civilian Job: Student

Inside the claustrophobic turret, Sinor pulls rounds from the ammo compartment and loads them into the breech. Over and over. And lightning fast. The Abrams can fire three different types of rounds. Bowen tells Sinor which type to load and when. Each shell weighs about 50 pounds, so strength and stamina are essential. Yet, even for a Soldier accustomed to such a physically demanding job, one of the Sullivan Cup events was “like a CrossFit workout on steroids,” Sinor says. During the armor crewman PT test, he says, “We had to lift a 120 mm dummy round over our head as many times as possible in two minutes, do a suicide run using tank track blocks, drag a tow cable 40 meters, roll a tank wheel around a 240-foot course, and then run a mile. All in ACUs and boots.”


Left: Main Gun Tube – The loader’s view down the barrel of the 120 mm M256A1, 17.3 feet from breech block to outside. Right: Ammunition Ready Rack – Where ammo is stored; shown here with two target practice sabot rounds.

 

Prepping for Glory

The crew made the most of the short time they had to train together. First at their home base of Fort Bragg, NC, and later at the Guard’s Warrior Training Center at Fort Benning, they rehearsed anything and everything the competition could throw at them—target acquisition, fire procedures, land nav, medevac. They did M9 stress shoots, simulator scenarios. They shot rounds downrange. And they worked to tighten the bond so crucial to a tank crew’s success. “Every day, we woke up early and ran together as a team,” Hill says.


SGT CURTIS BOWEN

Role: Gunner


Years in Guard: 5


Civilian Job: Delivery truck driver

Across the breech block from Sinor, Bowen lies in wait, finger poised above the trigger. Sinor yells “UP!”—his signal that the round is locked and loaded—then Dupre gives the fire command. Bowen is so prepared, so laser-focused that he doesn’t even have to think. From the Abrams’ 120 mm M256A1 smoothbore main gun, he hurls lead. And he almost always nails his target. “Being a great tank gunner is a lot like being great with your rifle,” he says. It’s about control … over nerves, over breathing. It’s also about maintaining precision under pressure, and reacting fast while still paying attention to detail. And, like everything else inside the Abrams, it’s about synergy. During the gunnery event of the Sullivan Cup—arguably the most challenging of the competition—Bowen says Sinor and Dupre helped him identify targets. “My loader spotted more targets than I did,” he says. “When he did, he’d walk me onto them. It’s definitely team cohesion that makes the difference.”

Left: Gunner’s Primary Sight – Used to target the enemy. Controls calculate firing solutions based on ammo, switch between main gun and coax machine gun, and adjust sights. Right, top: Bore Sighter – For faster, more accurate zeroing. Right, bottom: Gunner’s Primary Control Handles – Used to manipulate and fire main gun.


SPC PHILIP HILL

Role: Driver


Years in Guard: 2


Civilian Job: Student

Alone in the belly of the tank is Hill. As driver, he’s tasked with making the 60-plus-ton, 1,500-horsepower behemoth move, which he does using a gear selector and joystick-like throttles. Frequently forced to drive blind due to mud-caked vision blocks or other vision deterrents, Hill counts on the TC for directional guidance. Plus, he gets navigational info from a display panel in his cubbyhole, which also monitors speed, fluid levels and other data. Primo communication and technological expertise notwithstanding, Hill says being a great Abrams driver is easy with practice—“but you need so much more than that to be a great tanker. Being fast at getting in the tank, going through startup procedures and being fully prepared for every [scenario] requires attention to detail and a top-to-bottom knowledge of what it takes to accomplish our mission,” he says. 


 

The Will to Win

Underdogs. Upset. Those are the words used to describe the North Carolina crew and their achievement. But for Dupre, the outcome wasn’t surprising in the least. He attributes his team’s success to two factors: collective wealth of knowledge and motivation. “SPC Hill, SPC Sinor and SGT Bowen all took the initiative to become the best they could be at their assigned positions, claimed ownership of their successes and failures and continually maintained a mission-focused attitude,” he says. “I am so proud of how my crew performed under pressure and lived the lesson that nothing is better for morale than mission completion.”