Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Stalled Ky. tank crew eager to join battle

By John Bebow
The Detroit News

SOUTHERN IRAQ - All day Sunday, word filtered back from the front lines: Casualties were mounting from a firefight between Marines and Iraqi troops north of the town of An Nasiriyah.

The four Marines aboard an M1A1 Abrams tank called Pale Rider should have been there. Instead, fate left them broken down, miles behind their platoon.

"It's driving us crazy not to be up there," said Sgt. Larry Neltner, 43, of Newport, Ky.

The other 13 tanks in 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 8th Tank Battalion were expected to be at the front lines of a task force of Marines storming An Nasiriyah over the weekend.

But Pale Rider was stuck at a maintenance depot in the desert while a fake surrender by Iraqi troops caused an unknown number of Marine casualties and Iraqis reportedly captured up to 12 members of a U.S. Army supply convoy.

As they waited for a new starter and generator Monday morning, Neltner and the rest of the crew could only send good vibes to friends likely in the thick of fire.

"There's this one ... corporal up there, he's probably my best buddy out here," said Cpl. Bret Thompson, 22, of Elizabethtown, Ky.

Thompson and fellow Cpl. Scott Fett, 21, of Lexington, Ky., knew they have proven they are elite tank operators - except in battle. The two were part of a tank crew that finished second in a national Marine competition last fall.

"Our hearts just sunk yesterday when we started to hear about casualties," Thompson said. "Being here is worse. Up there, we know what we need to do."

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