” A 51 Tango is a hell of a soldier…!” was part of a cadence we sang at survey school in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. And it’s true. 51 Tangos are a unique breed of perceptive, eccentric, innovative soldiers who must be kept busy or else we will mastermind elaborate pranks to terrorize each other. Luckily we were busy with many survey projects during OIF 1! Sadly, I do not have detailed notes about the projects from my deployment, but I remember enough to piece together the image of a typical day for a surveyor at BIAP. When my company arrived in the summer of 2003, my survey team of 3 was absorbed by the Battalion’s much larger team, and we became part of a great adventure.
The Battalion surveyors were not the only Tangos we encountered; there were also surveyors at the Brigade and Group level (the corresponding levels of hierarchy for Army units). More surveyors lived across the road in neighboring engineer battalions, so the potential for collaboration on engineering projects was tremendous. We were only limited by the hours of the day, our own energy levels, and the parameters given by our OICs (Officers in Charge). We were very lucky because the OICs had clear foresight of missions that needed to be accomplished and they trusted us to do our jobs without micromanaging us. To that end, we were free to roam around BIAP unsupervised and explore areas in which most other soldiers had never set foot.
A typical day for a 51T would start after breakfast with a pow-wow in the Battalion survey office. We would receive our mission for the day or simply plan to continue a mission that had not yet been completed. After packing up necessary equipment and MREs (because we would likely be out all day) and checking the vehicle for operational readiness, it was time to load up and leave camp. The early days of deployment included many topographic surveys and blueprint development for new camps, roads and such. Surveying is tedious work under often strenuous environmental conditions, so we welcomed distractions such as fields full of unexploded ordinance or bombed out palaces that demanded further exploration. We took every opportunity to walk through the abandoned palaces, assessing the damage and puzzling over the immense luxury of the interiors and the bizarre murals painted on the walls. Saddam with a mermaid? Okay.
Lunch breaks were an opportunity for adventure too. At one remote camp we took a cool dip in a broken water bladder, which could no longer store water, but was a perfect mini swimming pool! We packed our PT uniforms at the direction of our NCOIC and when lunch time came around we hopped into the “pool” to cool down and wash the day’s worth of grime off our arms and faces. After we dried off it was back to work.
We also “crossed the wire” on occasion, or left the secure area of BIAP, and ventured out into what was sometimes referred to as the Wild West, to buy things other Tangos (who weren’t on the mission that day) had requested: cigarettes, soda, ice, even Black Market items. This errand was usually run at the end of the survey mission, especially if we needed ice. The kibosh was put on our errand running a few weeks into the deployment when it was deemed far too dangerous for soldiers to be crossing the wire and buying items from the roadside stands. Before that happened, we could get funny cigarettes and even smoke apple flavored tobacco from hookahs with the Iraqi market people before heading back to camp!
We spent as much time as possible exploring, and we could brag that we stepped into palaces and abandoned buildings that most soldiers never set foot in. We climbed over rubble heaps and perched on majestic window ledges to get the best views. But survey missions weren’t all fun and games. We worked very hard, standing in the unforgiving sun, sweat dripping into our underwear, shooting points and pounding stakes as fast as we could to prepare sites for the earth movers. It wasn’t funny when the tripod refused to level and it was 120 degrees in the shade; then by the time we did get it leveled the Geodimeter experienced a malfunction wouldn’t work for the rest of the day. Or there were days when we would go out to a site where we had smashed fingers pounding in a half mile of stakes for a new road only to discover that an equipment operator had run them all over because he thought that the stakes indicated, “that was where I was supposed to drive”.
Although we did have a few run-ins with equipment operators who did not understand our use of stakes, a few patient explanations (and a few screaming fits) set things straight and our rapport with the earth movers was quite copasetic. Aside from traditional survey, we also squeezed in quality control of concrete at the BIAP airport on occasion. This meant a rare treat: a visit to the gorgeous airport and a chance to work with Iraqi civilian engineers, both a challenge and a learning opportunity. On top of all this we had the soils lab for our geotechnical team. Surveyors who exhibited a particular interest in working with soils were given the opportunity to spend time in the lab testing soil characteristics, sometimes late into the night depending on the nature of the tests. We collected a wide variety of soil from BIAP sample zones and ran as many different tests as we could in the lab to make determinations about the cantankerous soil underfoot. Working in the soils lab gave us the chance to get dirtier than we had ever anticipated, and there were many spontaneous mud fights when nerves got a little frayed…
As the typical survey day drew to an end we would return to the office and drop off equipment, recharge batteries, do PMCS on the vehicle, and sit around to BS before dinner chow. Conversation would take the same turns. What did we miss about home? Who were our significant others back home and what did we miss most about them? What kind of food were we craving? Who deserved the latest prank and what kind of prank should it be? Did we have time to do a prank before dinner? We passed around a cigarette or a bottle of soda before chow time, talked a little about nothing, and tried not to think about the fact that we were all just a bunch of scared kids in the desert. Just a typical day for a team of surveyors, some 51 Tangos. A 51 Tango is a hell of a solider…
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