‘Semper Tanks’: Marines hold on to tanker spirit as 100-year legacy ends
The Marine Corps is ditching tanks, but its tankers are working to preserve their unique subculture, some with hopes that their special breed may one day be called on again.
“We are small and we are all really cut from the same cloth,” said Maj. Ronald “JR” Valasek, an armor officer who launched a YouTube channel this summer where the tight-knit community can document its own legacy. “I will always be a tanker.”
Dubbed “100 years of Marine Corps Tankers,” the channel was born days after the 4th of July, as tank companies were closing and their M1A1 Abrams tanks were being hauled away. The Marines who crewed them were being asked to retrain, change services or retire.
“It’s a way for us to keep our stories alive,” Valasek said in a phone interview. “The series is going to go for as long as I have interviews.”
He was inspired to launch the weekly video series after realizing many current or former tankers have memories and feelings to share. It’s been “like therapy,” he said, adding that it had spurred old friends to reconnect off-camera too.
In parts oral history, pep talk and eulogy, the episodes occasionally open a window into the final days of the service’s remaining tank units, slated to be shuttered by 2023 — one century after the Corps received its first six M1917 tanks from the Army.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Formella, operations chief at the North Carolina-based 2nd Tank Battalion, spoke with Valasek in late July, just hours after his battalion’s M1A1s were loaded onto railcars at Camp Lejeune for the last time.
“It hurts seeing that [tank] ramp empty. Oh, it hurts,” Formella said. “I’ve been trying to hold it together all week.”
It’s like losing a loved one, said Valasek, a 17-year veteran. Another heartbreak was knowing he and others will retire in a few years without the traditional ceremony on the tank ramp, standing under crossed 120 mm cannons, as their mentors and heroes had in years past.
The Marines got the news this spring, when Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger published a vision for the service’s future without heavy armor and several other units. But it’s a demise that’s long been foretold.
“This day has been coming for … 30 years,” Chris Juhls, a retired gunnery sergeant, said in July. “It just so happens it’s now, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Servicewide cuts to equipment, units and personnel are partly meant to free up money for modernization without asking Congress for a bigger budget.
While Valasek didn’t expect tank units to be unscathed, he was “personally shocked” that none survived.
A veteran of the Iraq war who spent over six months fighting in Fallujah, he said “tanks were an absolute necessity” there during Operation Phantom Fury and subsequent operations. Many Marine infantrymen would not have made it home without them, he and others say.
“When you need a tank, nothing else will suffice,” Valasek said. “I don’t know what direct fire asset is going to replace [tanks].”
Still, as a former aide to Berger, he said he knows the general’s decision wasn’t made without considering its full ramifications. The commandant envisions a lighter, more agile Marine Corps, largely designed to counter China, and has said the Army would continue provide tanks and other heavy ground systems.
But the concept raises questions for former Marine armor officer Dan Grazier, who anticipated several complications from relying on another service for heavy armor. This is partly because tanks are a maneuver element of their own in the Army, but the Marine Corps sees them strictly as support for infantry forces.
A military fellow at the nonprofit watchdog Project on Government Oversight, Grazier was also skeptical that the U.S. would see the type of conflict the Marine Corps now envisions and suggested it could be more likely to see combat operations where armor units would be direly needed.
“I really fear the day that a future Marine finds himself in a bind and looks around because he needs a tank and there isn’t one there to help him,” he said.
But on the YouTube channel, several Marines have voiced what Valasek calls “tanker optimism” that the service may one day backtrack — and that it’ll need Marines like them again when it does.
“Just because our equipment’s going away, our brotherhood’s not. It will never die,” Formella said. “Our stories will continue through our kids ... until tanks come back.”