When you talk to Zachary Isbell about his military experience, a sentence he may quickly say is, "I miss the tanks."
One of the U.S. Army's modern tank crew members, or what is known in the Army as a 19 Kilo, he spent months at Fort Benning's Maneuver Center of Excellence learning the ins and outs of operating and taking care of the heavily armored rulers of the battlefield.
The M-1 Abrams, a design that was birthed in the 1980s military buildup initiated by President Ronald Reagan, has since gained a reputation in both war and peace as a ruler of the battlefield.
Combat tested, it is one of the premiere tanks in all the armies of the world. The design has been continually modified to keep this warhorse competitive in the modern battlefield, and still the Abrams reigns.
But Isbell had to get through the basic training portion of his initial entry experience in the Army before he got the chance to mount up in the modern cavalry.
"It was hard at first," said Isbell, 23, of the experience of meeting his drill sergeants for the first time. He describes his young life before the Army as one where he talked to no one face to face.
"I mostly interacted with people online," he said. "Thanks to the Army, I learned how to communicate and made some lifelong friends."
Basic training went by in a whirl. The non-commissioned officers who would take charge of his next set of skills would be the calm, attentive professionals who would introduce him and his fellow trainees to the world of tanks.
"It was a completely different vibe," he said. "In the initial training environment, things are locked down, dress right dress. But the training NCOs we were introduced to were laid-back, comparatively. You learn to trust the guys training you on the tanks. Most of them have been doing this for a living for a long time. Some of them have driven tanks into combat. They know their jobs and are there to train you to standard."
Isbell did not have long to wait. Almost immediately, he and his fellow trainees were put on and in the tanks.
"We immediately started getting a feel for how the tanks maneuver, how they drive," he said. "Then, we began on simulators. After that, the instructors took us through the finer points of training and then began orienting us on the guns."
Tankers advance through tank stations as they advance in rank.
"Those of us starting out in tanks begin as drivers and loaders of the main gun," he said. "The gunner and tank commander positions are run by more senior soldiers, more experience tankers. But we did get a chance to try the guns, though most of us just worked with practice rounds."
Isbell loved tank training.
"It was exciting," he said. "Going from a quiet, shy kid to this exciting life, it helped me get out of my shell."
After graduation, his first duty assignment was to First Battalion, 16th Armor, Charlie Company, Fort Riley, Kansas.
"I was going to the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One," said Isbell. "The division is legendary in its history and accomplishments. From day one you get to the division, you hear it constantly, 'Duty first, service always.'"
Isbell went to the field with his unit almost immediately to get certified for a training rotation to National Training Center, Fort Irwin, California. Fort Irwin is home to a rugged desert training environment, notorious in what it puts visiting soldiers through. Known as "The Box," it is an essential exercise in preparing American soldiers for war.
"After that, we were sent to Camp Humphreys, South Korea," he said.
Isbell's unit was part of the continuing rotation of units to South Korea to bolster the in-country assets of the 2nd Infantry Division, "The Indianhead."
Since the inactivation of the division's 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team in 2015, stateside units have been sent to fill in that space on the Korean peninsula. He and his fellow tankers were based at Camp Humphreys, though they did move much closer to the legendary DMZ, with stays at Camp Casey and Rodriguez Range.
Now, Isbell is out of the service and a student at Texas A&M-Texarkana. He is getting his bachelor's degree in criminal justice, but is considering re-entering the service. Though if he does, it will be another branch.
"The Army was a learning experience," he said. "It taught me about life, people. I grew as a person. For anyone thinking of joining, any of the branches can be good. Stepping up to serve is a brave act and anyone who does so should be proud. For those thinking about it, do it, if you can. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."