Michael's Dispatches

Spitting Cobra

87 Comments

15 January 2010

Cobra Battery at FOB Frontenac
Arghandab, Afghanistan

Artillery is called “The King of Battle.”  When it comes to the delivery of force, probably nothing outside of nuclear weapons can outmatch the sustained delivery of extreme brutality.  Cannons also can deliver small atomic weapons.

 

Aircraft and missles have range and other profound advantages, yet on a tactical battlefield these guns are like a force of nature.

They can fire in any weather that man dares to stand in.

American artillery can destroy a parked car with the first shot from twenty miles away.  No sniper has ever lived who can shoot so well.

The red glow is caused by an approaching humvee whose lights were dimmed by red filters, yet the sensitive camera collected light over time.

Calculations for shots are extremely complex and include dozens of factors, such as windspeed, barometric pressure, humidity, altitude of the gun and the target, temperature, and the Earth’s rotation, and the specific lot number of the ammunition.  Every gun is different and so the calculations for one gun would lose accuracy in another.  The guns are brutal and rugged, but also high-tech, precision machines that took centuries of science, engineering and experience to reach the current state.

The guns have reached such a high level of evolution that despite the extreme complexity, within minutes of receiving a “fire mission,” a good crew will reliably deliver accurate shots with help from the computer.

Sometimes missions are pre-planned, while at other times crews must wait close to the guns for hours, even days, without a break.  There was some base in Iraq—I went there with CSM Jeff Mellinger but have forgotten where it was—and the base was taking rocket or mortar fire on a frequent basis from a certain area.  And so the cannoneers slept just next to the guns, and finally the enemy fired and was killed because the guns were pointed at the exact predicted firing point.  The cannoneers just loaded and counter-fired and finished them.  Probably few people on base realized that the “cannon cockers” had conducted an ambush-by-howitzer.  (Maybe the crew who was there will recall this and set the facts straight.)

Cobra battery, 1-17th Infantry, fires illumination.

Sometimes the crews fire “H & I” or “terrain denial” missions.  Harassment and Interdiction missions are fired at terrain known to be used only by the enemy at certain times, and so anytime the enemy feels like rolling the dice, they can move into that terrain.  Such missions also provide influence for “shaping” the battlefield.  If the commander is trying to flush the enemy into a blunder—maybe an ambush—or maybe to cut them off from an escape route, he can have the guns pound into a gorge, say, that is used as an enemy route.  Or maybe he just tries to persuade the enemy to take a route where we have sniper teams waiting.  The battery can be used in many ways that do not include direct attacks on enemy formations.


 

Bringing ammuntion to Afghanistan is far more expensive than most places—all is brought in by air.  Pakistani and Russian officials understandably don’t want our explosives traveling through their territory; nor do we.  I once flew from Kuwait to Bagram in a C-17 that was filled with 155mm projectiles and a couple of passengers.

The cannons can be towed or picked up by helicopters and moved many miles within an hour, and so it’s possible to stage a long-range attack with the guns by suddenly moving them. The guns can wait quietly for months or years without need of refueling or runways.  The crews are small, and the ammunition is hardy and can be stored for a lifetime.

Some muzzle flashes are not bright because the target is near, requiring little propellant.

The Dragon roars: This was an HE mission and the target was far away requiring a larger charge.  Sometimes they are even brighter.

The guns are dangerous, so the crew must be well trained, and they must frequently drill.  Recently, a soldier got hit in the helmet by a recoiling 155mm cannon.  He escaped with no injury but was lucky not to be killed.

Shots can be directed through many methods.  Aircraft such as A-10s or Predators can spot targets, as can soldiers on the ground.  A satellite could just as easily spot targets.  There is no “best way”; each situation is different.  However, it’s tempting to say the “best way” to call in the guns is to have highly trained troops on the ground who can get eyes on the target.  These troops train specifically for calling such strikes.  Their jobs require great preparation, including much classroom time, physical ruggedness, and coolness in the face of getting killed.  But that’s a different story.

Every shot is accounted for.  Some months back, I was staying in downtown Kandahar and photographed illumination floating down over Arghandab.  When I got to 5/2 SBCT, the date/time stamp on the photos was used to ask the FSO (Fire Support Officer) what the missions were about.  He looked it up on the computer a few minutes later.   The fire mission had not come from 5/2 (but plenty of other missions spilled onto the screen).  There is no such thing as a mysterious fire mission from U.S. forces—there are always records that are stored in various places.

Before firing, HQ checks that no aircraft are in the flight path.   Otherwise, sooner or later we’d likely shoot down one of our own aircraft or, worse, a commercial airliner filled with passengers.  These shots can fly higher than the summit of Mt. Everest (really), and could easily traverse through the cabin of a commercial flight.

There are many sorts of cannons, ammunitions and fuzes.

White Phosphorus “WP” ammunition is used for screening, and there is “HE” or “high explosives,” and many other sorts.  Mostly in Afghanistan our people use illumination and HE.

The enemy uses unexploded projectiles as IEDs.  In Iraq, projectiles mostly came from ammo dumps that our government failed to secure after the invasion, thus costing untold numbers of Iraqi and US lives.  Sometimes the enemy would bury the projectiles in the roads, or cast them into concrete just like road curbs.  They would fill trunks of cars with artillery rounds—some ammo was from South Africa—and those made powerful car bombs.  Unexploded artillery rounds that “kicked out” could be found at the scene of some car bombs.

American projectiles are relatively very reliable and normally explode when they impact targets, but earlier in 2009 while in the Philippines, Philippine commanders told me that many of the IEDs killing their soldiers come from old ammunition that didn’t explode on impact.  The enemy returns the bad ammo in the form of IEDs.

On dark nights, illumination rounds, both visible and invisible to the naked eye, can be seen pretty much every night.  Visible “illum” is very bright and casts eerie shadows over the battlefield.  The IR illum is fired often when our guys are about to do something serious.   Our guys want the enemy to be in the dark but we want to see through the NVGs (night vision gear).   To the naked eye, IR illum appears like a dim candle slowly floating in the sky.  Through NVGs it’s like broad daylight (the NVG equivalent of broad daylight, anyway).  IR illum is often fired on nights when natural illumination is low, such as when the moon is hiding around the edge of the Earth, or behind clouds.  Helicopter pilots like IR illum during “red illum” periods (when too dark to fly without special gear) because it helps them see the ground and thus they can avoid crashing the helicopter.


 

Headlamps of the Cobra Battery soldiers emanate an eerie glow.  At other times they might use red lights that are more difficult for the enemy to see, but we are pretty safe on FOB Frontenac, so the greater danger is making a mistake around the gun, such as dropping a hundred-pound HE projectile on your foot.  The round will not explode—but you can scratch one foot off the inventory sheet, which takes a soldier out of action.

There’s lots of ways to get hurt here even while the enemy is sleeping.  The gunners talked about a time up in Alaska, or maybe it was Washington State, when someone fired a cannon during the winter.  They said the cannon broke from the ice and slid away and hit a truck.

The cannon’s computer and can run on battery or generator, or the soldiers can compute by hand using charts and other aids, just short of an abacus.  You’d have to be a gifted mathmatecian with a great physics background to hit within a half mile of the target without the firing aides.

Here, Cobra battery dug a circular firing pit with shovels (this ground is not quite as hard as Stone Mountain, but it’s getting there), so they can swing the cannon around 360 degrees.  The gunners are very fast, and using the computer could switch from one fire mission to another within about a couple minutes.

Computations before firing.

There are many sorts of fuzes.  The most commonly used in Afghanistan will airburst, explode on impact, or slightly after impact.  Airbursts typically are used for Taliban in areas such as uncovered trenches.  While delay fuzes might be used for enemy who are in bunkers or positions with overhead cover, such as inside an earthen Afghan compound.  Fire missions often include a mix of fuzes.

Sometimes the crew needs about a minute between shots.  The dragon breath from the muzzle during these shots was not so bright; the target area was only maybe a few miles away, and so the charge was small.  As one illum descends and is about to burn out, another is fired behind it.

The artillery shots are not like a normal rifle bullet wherein the projectile is crimped to brass that contains gunpowder.  Instead, the 155mm projectile is selected and the fuze is set.  On the ultra-accurate (and expensive) GPS-guided “Excalibur” projectile, the coordinates are set in the fuze using a handheld electronic gadget that is placed over the fuze like a little snowcone, which wirelessly transmits the data to the guidance system.  There is no exaggeration saying that an Excalibur round could destroy a parked car twenty miles away on the first shot.  The accuracy is incredible, given all the unpredictable winds and other factors the round will encounter during its flight through the sky – which literally could be shot on from a crystal clear mountain, taking the round far higher than the summit of Mt. Everest where it could pass through winds going different directions and at very high speeds, snow, and then down through a hailstorm and finally through rain.  Imagine the quick temperature changes from a hot-shot in the desert up to airliner altitude.  The tracking and guidance computer must be able to handle all that – and fast – after being shot from a cannon.

The projectile with set-fuze is rammed up into the breach, and behind that the soldiers stuff the propellent.  The breach is locked and a primer emplaced, and finally a cord is pulled and there is no turning back.

Some countries, like the United States, have “counterbattery radars.”  The US has Q36 and Q37 radars, for instance, and they can spot birds or incoming mortar or artillery fire.  Rockets and low trajectory mortars often fly below the radar.  Our bases have radars to alert for various attacks, but the alerts are often farcical.  Sometimes the attack is over before the alarm sounds, and over in Iraq there were so many false alarms that people stopped paying attention.  Especially when the ground was muddy.

Counterbattery radar, though, is actually very useful and can be used to pinpoint the POO (Point of Origin) of enemy shots before the first round even detonates.  In some situations, our people would immediately counterfire, unless of course the enemy launches from next to a school or a built up area.  KAF (Kandahar Airfield) gets hit now and then, with some casualties, but the attacks are uncommon compared to what the Brits got in Basra.  You’d get hit more times in a week with Brits than in an entire year with U.S. forces.

We’ve also got a sytem called C-RAM (Counter Rocket and Mortar), which can acquire incoming rounds and shoot a stream of bullets so dense that it looks like a laser.  Sometimes on KAF they wake me up, but apparently they are shooting at the moon or calibrating the guns.  They sure are loud.

When Cobra battery fired at high angles, they had to fire and then lower the gun to reload, and since the camera was set on these shots with 30-second exposures to catch the stars, the gun can be seen firing, then lowered for reloading.

Though the Taliban had an Air Force at one time, they don’t have counterbattery radar.  If they did we would kill it quickly.  But if we were fighting a more capable enemy, we’d have to protect our guns, such as by firing and moving very quickly.  Imagine being in an artillery duel.  As a commander, you don’t want to lose your guns and leave your infantry at the mercy of enemy guns, and so a good enemy commander will probably shoot at where you shot from, and everywhere he thinks you might have gone in that amount of time.  This causes Taliban some headaches because sometimes they fire at us and run, but our guys are already launching shots at where we thought they might go.  It’s got to take nerve to shoot at an American base.  You’ll probably get away with it for a while.

And that’s about it.  Next time our soldiers need a fire mission, Cobra Battery is one of many who are ready to deliver the goods.  Rest assured, when our people get into a serious firefight, or hit by an IED, the Medevac crews know about it within about a minute, and they are watching the narrative scroll on their screens while they toss coffee cups in the trash.   When a casualty report scrolls, they don’t even wait for orders—they just run to helicopters and crank them up and the rotors start whirling.  Meanwhile, the A-10s and other available warbirds already have turned that direction.  If the fight is unfolding in Cobra Battery’s sector, the crew will be standing by this gun.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Matthew · 9 years ago
    Way to go arty! Thanks for being there and doing what you do. We appreciate your service to our country and especially to the 1-17 guys. Best wishes!
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    http://thespiritofma · 9 years ago
    Great work, Michael Yon. Neat!
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    Sara Johnson · 9 years ago
    Thank God for these men and women. Thank you Mr. Yon for covering their stories.
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    Brian · 9 years ago
    Can't help but wonder who named the FOB? Frontenac was the ballsy military/civil leader of French Canada who took on the Iroquois and English in Upstate NY and the Ohio Valley long before the Declaration of Independence was a thought in anyone's mind. His mission: Stop the harrassment by the 6 Nations and their Anglo suppliers...maybe an appropriate name after all...he did 2 tours...his second one he was past 60 years of age.
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    Doug Wright · 9 years ago
    Good to hear about arty being used over there in Afghanistan. As an older Red Leg, Arty Weather back in the COLD war/peace days, can't imagine how weather data is collected these days. Plus that FDC effort must be interesting too. Especially good to see and read about those 2ID guys and pray for all of them too.

    The roar of the guns is exciting and great to hear except the 8-inch guns shake the ground and make plots shaky.
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    Jason Mann · 9 years ago
    These are some awesome shots Michael. I don't see many artillery crews in the news, so this was refreshing.

    thanks and keep up the great work,
    Jason
    prior Fister (13 Foxtrot)
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    Not defeated · 9 years ago
    Well, well. 2010 and the Americans finally get in the fight.

    The Canadians have been doing this and doing it better for the last 6 years with their M777 & excalibur rounds.

    But you think they have been tactically defeated so don't bother reporting on them.

    A word of advice . . stay out of Timmy's on the boardwalk at KAF. There are a few Canucks who want to "ask" you about your ludicrous claim that they have been defeated by the Taliban.
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    Matt · 9 years ago
    Fascinating how many factors go into calculations for aiming these guns! Thanks for the account.
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    Sandra · 9 years ago
    The photos and the commentary are both fantastic! Thanks for taking us to where are brave soldiers are fighting and showing us their jobs and more importantly, their faces.

    I'm keeping you and them in my prayers.

    Sandy
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    Laura McClellan · 9 years ago
    .....and looking at what is happening in Haiti right now, your email popped up. With all of the tragedy happening in the world this very minute, I find it amazing that we have such brave, courageous, and giving men and women in our armed services. These men and women are all over the world helping others and serving our country. It is truly an amazing job that I truly respect. I am so proud to be an American and would not want to be any where but the US! A big thank you to our military! May God bless you for all that you do for others!

    Thank you Michael Yon for showing us what goes on when I am in the safety of my own home. I will keep you and these men and women in my prayers.

    God bless!
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    William Baird · 9 years ago
    Thank you, Michael, for now we know a little more about the guns and their evolution into today's fighting.
    Ernie Pyle wrote in 1944 that the Germans feared our artillery "... almost more than anything we had."
    Perhaps our enemies in Afghanistan feel similarly.
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    Victoria · 9 years ago
    Great shots Michael and thanks again for bringing them to us. Next soldier you see, would you tell them I appreciate them, just so they remember? What an admirable job they are doing.
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    Joans Bob · 9 years ago
    Magnificent photography, as usual, Michael--but you should know that the Artillery folks pride themselves on being the Queen of Battle, not the king.
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    spratico · 9 years ago
    That's interesting stuff. Great pictures too!
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    Jim Growney · 9 years ago
    What an awesome post. I join other old redleggers in a big Hooah! I was on a M102 105mm Light towed with Delta Battery 1/509 ABN in Italy in the 80's. Shoot, Move, Communicate is what we did. Great to see FA get a nod.. . . And Kudo's to the other countries there in the mix! THanks Michael. Keep the posts coming downrange...
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    Jim Growney · 9 years ago
    Joan's Bob, I beleive you are incorrect. Artillery is and has been "King of Battle" for a LONG time. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/agency/army/fa.htm is a good reference on the different monikers used by various branches.
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    Tammy Hodges · 9 years ago
    Just, simply awesome, Michael.
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    ZZMike · 9 years ago
    Those are incredibly good photographs. I do believe one could get a good ground location, from the stars in the background.
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    Steve Porter · 9 years ago
    What an amazing job our soldiers do. Thank you for your service! I am amazed at your dedication. Once again Michael you have put together some fantastic photos. Thank you for your dedication to your work and your professionalism.
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    Alan Johnson · 9 years ago
    Michael,
    Great pictures and a look at todays gun bunnies ( thats what we called them, no offense! ) Supported them back in the early 80's when they first started getting the hitech M109's, glad to see that the made the new towed ones so effective. Hats off to all the guys on the guns and in the fight
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    stergeye · 9 years ago
    Great coverage Michael.

    And the extraordinary soldiers who perform these wonders with these weapons are those whom certain politicians said weren't "smart enough" to stay out of the military. God bless them all, and you as well.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Alex · 9 years ago
    Thanks Michael for covering the Artillery gunners. Being an ex-Navy gunner it's great to see how the Army guys play.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    MissBirdlegs in AL · 9 years ago
    Terrific pics & commentary, as usual! I realize you have great subjects (our fine warriors) to work with, but you're the only one who really tells a story. It's much appreciated.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Stephen Bowen · 9 years ago
    Great Shots,I was an FO for 155,s in Germany in the 80's,wish we had all this neat stuff!

    Toujours Pret!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    *C* · 9 years ago
    Mr. Yon as always excellent job and a Oorah!! to you Sir, Also nice mention of the deep "Eyes on Target" teams... ; )
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tim · 9 years ago
    Awesome pictures! The C-RAM is very simular to the Close In Weapons System (CIWS) that is used against anti-ship missiles on Navy Ships. When the CIWS fires the whole entire deck rumbles. Its really cool to watch from the flight deck.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Max Perry · 9 years ago
    Thanks Michael for your terrific camera and feel you have for the Soldiers doing their job so skillfully we have great gratitude for their professionalism and respect for their dedication and skill. We also appreciate what you do to bring their "story" to us iin pictures and descriptions which leave us spellbound. Thank you and God protect the soldiers and their chronicler.
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    neil · 9 years ago
    Arty lends dignity to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl! 0811 usmc 69-71
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    Peter · 9 years ago
    +1 for QUEEN.
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    Hoorah · 9 years ago
    Hope you wore earplugs, and hope they got lots of the enemy.
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    Jan D USA · 9 years ago
    Your photography and story-telling is like no other. These photos have a quality of 'star wars' proportions. If I were the enemy I'd be packing my bags. Thank you so much for continuing to bring the spotlight to our extraordinary soldiers. Another depiction of how incredible they all are! Forever indebted for what they (and you) do.
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    Go Army · 9 years ago
    Queen of Battle refers to the Infantry. We are a four generation Army family and the last two have been Infantrymen. Our son is currently in eastern Afghanistan and works with an FA unit. He was in Ramadi, Iraq in 2005-2006, when it was a really bad time to be in Ramadi. These soldiers are an amazing group of men and women. I couldn't be prouder to be an Army Brat, Army Wife, and Army Mom. Our daughter even has RMYBRT on her license plate.
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    Bill Boyce · 9 years ago
    Your photos are awesome, and your comments are excellent. Love the arty!
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    MGF · 9 years ago
    Fascinating photos as ever, Mr Yon.
    You might care to know that the M777 is actually a British invention by Vickers and is an excellent piece of kit. I was in Procurement in the 80s and saw the first prototypes firing in Cumbria. Sadly, UK didn't buy it but it is used to great effect by CAN, US and AUS forces. As somebody has already said, Artillery adds............to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl. I know - I was an FOO in the Cold War; one of my sons is commanding an FST on Herrick 11 and the other one (RM) deploys in 18 months time.
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    Bob Tolford · 9 years ago
    As a former FDCer (in B-Btry, 22nd FA in Panama Canal Zone and elsewhere) in the 70's, it is nice to read about a modern artillery unit. Great photos too Michael. When I could get away from the FDC I would take my old Canon F1 SLR and take photos. They look nothing like yours though. I looked up your camera online and am quite impressed with it's capabilities. You've got a good eye for photography; I love your shots. One of these days I must get out to Ft. Sill and check out the Artillery Museum there. Fascinating what modern artillery can do, particularly the Excaliber round.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chicago Patriot · 9 years ago
    Michael Yon, YOU ARE OUR ERNIE PYLE! Your skills and knowledge are vast, and we admire and thank you for the work that you do. May God bless our fighting men and women, and may God bless you and keep you all safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Craig C · 9 years ago
    5-2 SBCT assumed battlespace from the Canadians in RC-South. Hence the French-Canadian source for FOB name :-) Great write-up Michael! Got my spine tingling just seeing the beautiful pics of these heros doing their best for our country.

    "Can't help but wonder who named the FOB? Frontenac was the ballsy military/civil leader of French Canada who took on the Iroquois and English in Upstate NY and the Ohio Valley long before the Declaration of Independence was a thought in anyone's mind. His mission: Stop the harrassment by the 6 Nations and their Anglo suppliers...maybe an appropriate name after all...he did 2 tours...his second one he was past 60 years of age. "
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    Orion · 9 years ago
    Thanks, cannon-cockers, for everything you do - especially keeping your rounds out of the way of my birds! :-D

    (B 1/214th AVN fresh back from Iraq)

    Orion
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    James Ronan · 9 years ago
    Is Cobra Battery from a field artillery regiment (C Battery, x battalion, y Field Artillery?) and in support of 1-17 Inf or is it part of 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry?

    There is a 17th Field Artillery but so many reorganizations.

    Thank you for your service, anyhow and great shots (and great shooting).

    James Ronan
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    Slartibartfast · 9 years ago
    Great photos!

    I don't know much about artillery, but that looks like an M777. Keep up the great work.
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    Frank Schober · 9 years ago
    I am so proud of these soldiers. We have the best Army we have ever had, a better and more capable one than I served in. What's the saying? We can sleep safe in our beds because men like these are willing to put their lives on the line.
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    LTC Dennis Smith- CD · 9 years ago
    Mike,
    Thanks for the great coverage of 3-17 FA. The next time you are out at Ramrod, please stop by and visit the Gators.
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    thibaud · 9 years ago
    Thank you. God bless you.
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    Jim O · 9 years ago
    Those unexploded rounds bedeviled us in 'Nam as they were often turned into IEDs. There were way too many of them. After the war many of them were traced to a factory controlled by the Mafia where defective fuzes were passed regardless.

    Even at that we were happy to be able to call on the cannon cockers when the situation got ugly.

    Michael thanks for the great work.
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    Alan · 9 years ago
    As for me. I swear on my mothers grave. When our brave warriors come home. Any one thats calls our troops a baby killer, murderer or any thing disrespectful. They will pay a heavy price at the hands of this Vietnam Veteran.

    God Bless and keep ALL our troops safe and sound.
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    laura · 9 years ago
    i loved the pics and your commentary - so informational - thank you!

    What i cannot get over, are the stars. Do they really look like that??? i thought growing up in rural PA that we could see alot of stars but sheesh...i had no idea!
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    HoundOfDoom · 9 years ago
    Great photos and informative writing. I am so glad to read your work, and to learn about the work our people do in AF. LEarning about the sophstication of the weapons and the long training required to use them effectively increases the respect for our people.

    Best wishes to both you and our troops.
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    Ralph Treat · 9 years ago
    Absolutely great and "ON TARGET"
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    Aaron Bounds · 9 years ago
    Michael, this is the kind of stuff you are so well known for. These pictures are fantastic. Some of your opinion now and then is good stuff too. Your analysis is really great. But, I gotta let you know, some of the more recent posts you have made are more like reading a tabliod front page. I know that from your perspective they're important, and I'm not suggesting they are not, but this type of good old-fashioned photo-journalism is where it's at. You do GREAT work.
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    CT · 9 years ago
    That was fascinating. Excellent job on this piece, sir.

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