CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq -- "Adrenaline rush" doesn't describe what it's like to stand next to a tank as it fires. It's as if Thor, Norse god of thunder, got his Viking shorts in a bunch because someone makes a noise louder than him, so he grabs hold of the adrenal glands and squeezes for all he's worth.
The ear-cracking, rib-crunching, earth-shaking "boom" of the M-1A1 Main Battle Tank's 120 mm main-gun round firing is nothing short of unnatural. It's the sound of a thousand trees snapping in half all at once, the smack of a semi truck slamming head-on into a concrete wall or an entire July 4th fireworks show packed into about a half-second.
It's the sound of destruction. Final and total. Kaput. Nothing left.
It curls up the corners of tanker's mouths into sinister sneers, revealing childish, grit-filled sets of teeth. It's a smile that just can't be turned off. This is what tankers live for, days like the one C Company, 2nd Tank Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5 spent on Nov. 21.
Tankers rolled out their 68-ton behemoths to Camp Fallujah's Eagle Range to make sure that whatever they aimed at got destroyed, a chance for Marines shoot the guns they rarely get to fire.
"We went out to make sure the weapons systems were zeroed," said Sgt. Chris N. Campos, a 24-year-old tank commander from Easly, S.C. "Basically, we wanted to make sure we were hitting at what we were pointing."
Campos said tankers normally shoot twice a year at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the battalion's home station. He said his company got extra shooting time prior to recently deploying to Fallujah.
Still, any chance to shoot is a good day.
"It makes it all worth it," said Cpl. Ronald E. Valasek Jr., a 30-year-old gunner from Lower Burrell, Pa.
Chilled-morning air greeted Marines as their tanks crunched tracks, edging forward to the firing line. A few final preparations and it was fireworks time.
Outside the tanks, it was an eerie silence, waiting for the gun to blast. It all changed in a matter of milliseconds. The gun roared to life, belching out a ball of bright yellow flame. Sand flew up, seeming to leap from the earth from the ground-pounding shock as the concussion of the blast caused eyes to slam shut and shoulders to tighten.
Think earthquake, sky ripping open and mountains crumbling. It's like getting a 120 mm preview of a volcano eruption.
Ear plugs seemed worthless as the deafening crack reached into the center of the skull, rattling what little neurons were left firing.
Billows of smoke were all that remained as a second report of the round crashing through the hull of an abandoned Iraqi tank fell victim to Marines.
That was just what was happening on the outside.
"It's a lot more muffled on the inside," Campos said. "The blast is not as loud."
It's also a whole lot busier.
"There's a flash inside the turret when we fire," he added. "Then the breech comes flying back."
That keeps everyone on their toes, Valasek said.
"That breech recoils about a foot," he explained. It's also within inches of Marines heads, arms and legs.
"It's a big rush," said Lance Cpl. Glen Hawkins, a 19-year-old loader from Kansas City, Mo. "Slinging those rounds and slamming them into the gun and then the breech comes back. It's a huge flash coming in front of your face."
Lance Cpl. James E. Coder, the tank's 19-year-old-driver, has one of the best seats in the house for the whole show. The main gun hovers just feet above his head, separated by steel decks.
"When that thing goes off, you can feel the whole tank go back, even though we're driving forward," Coder explained.
The whole time Campos and Valasek are seated with their eyes glued to the sights. Valasek said most times, he barely even notices the gun's report.
"I pulled the trigger and a fireball came out," Valasek explained. "We shot through thermal sights, so the sight went white and the dust cleared in time for me to see the round impact on target. It's split-second total concentration. Even though I'm sitting right next to it, I don't experience it moving."
That split-second zone, the flash of the gun and devastating impacts on target are what makes being a tanker worth it. All the un-sexy parts of the job, the maintenance, greasy fingernails, lifting heavy track, the sweat, the cold, the early mornings and late night all seem to melt away.
"Spending an hour-an-a-half 'after-ops' to keep that machine rolling, it's worth it to be able to shoot," Valasek said. "It's an adrenaline rush."
But Valasek's a tanker. He's tougher to impress than Thor.