Taking the Train to War: A US Air Force Special Operations Pilot Remembers a Tank Battle in Ukraine

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Ukrainian soldiers deployed to Mariupol at the height of the war in 2014. Photo by Nolan Peterson.

Train travel is an ordinary experience. In Ukraine I went to war that way.

It was the end of August 2014 and the Russian military had invaded eastern Ukraine. Following the battle for Ilovaisk, in which hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and captured, the Russians were on the march. A sack on the port city of Mariupol — home to half a million people — looked imminent.

The war, it seemed, was rapidly spiraling out of control. Words like Grozny and Stalingrad were being tossed around by my Ukrainian friends. Yes, as a former Air Force special operations pilot, I knew what war looked like. But Grozny? Stalingrad? I’d never seen a war like that.

I was in Ukraine at the time as a freelance war correspondent, based in the capital city of Kyiv. By August, when Russia ditched its “hybrid war” farce and outright invaded Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, I’d already seen the war’s deadly effects on a previous trip to the front lines near the city of Slovyansk.

While back in Kyiv between front-line visits, I learned city officials were preparing the city’s metro stations for use as bomb shelters in case of a Russian air attack. It felt, in a word, apocalyptic.

If the very worst was going to happen, and at the time it certainly looked like it would, then it would happen in Mariupol. So that’s where I went.

Many towns in eastern Ukraine, such as Semyonovka, shown here, were heavily damaged by fighting in 2014.

Many towns in eastern Ukraine, such as Semyonovka, shown here, were heavily damaged by fighting in 2014. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

The train ride to Mariupol crossed many boundaries, both on the map and in my mind.

For me, war had always been quarantined from normal life. When I was a special operations pilot, my journeys to the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan always had a final way station — a clear dividing line between peace and war. Sometimes we stopped in Dubai, or Kuwait, or maybe al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Wherever it was, that final layover symbolized a cut-and-dry transition; there was no ambiguity about where the war began and when you were in it. Those boundaries made it easier to close the curtain on life back home and flip the switch in your mind to be in the right mental state. I knew, going in to those other wars, when to shut down the normal parts of myself to deal with the fear and the awfulness of combat. And I knew, on my way out, when it was okay to finally let down my guard.

On my first deployment to Afghanistan, an Army chaplain read the poem “Invictus” as we spiraled down to a blacked-out landing at Bagram Air Base.

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

All of those boundaries were erased in Ukraine. I didn’t know when and where the war began and ended. And did it ever?

In Iraq and Afghanistan I flew into the war zones on Air Force C-130s and C-17s. In Ukraine, I went to war on the top bunk in a four-person sleeper berth on an overnight train, which I shared during the 23-hour trip from Kyiv to Mariupol with a man and a woman and their infant child.

I knew, going in to those other wars, when to shut down the normal parts of myself to deal with the fear and the awfulness of combat.

Once, during the night, as I climbed down from my bunk to go to the bathroom, I saw the mother breastfeeding her baby on the lower bunk. Her husband was sleeping. It was silent in the room except for the staccato notes of the passing train tracks. In the dim light of the small lamp over her bed, we made eye contact. She smiled, and I smiled back awkwardly.

I had wanted very badly to repeat the process I had taught myself in Iraq and Afghanistan. I knew how important it was in a war to shut down the vulnerable parts of your self. You do this to live shallow, delaying the introspection and thinking about what you see until after you have escaped the danger. You see, there is no sanctuary in war where it is safe to be sensitive. Being sensitive will kill you. The war is like a toxic gas that slips through door cracks and unshut windows and permeates your skin and clothing. You will ruin yourself if you waste your time trying to cleanse yourself of war while within its grasp. You just have to let yourself be dirty because there’s no clean in the war. Clean only happens at home, if ever. Usually the stain is too deep by then. But you try anyway.

But it wasn’t so easy to get dirty in this war. There was too much about this war that felt like home. In the night I listened to the sounds of the train and the gentle cooing of the infant. How is this possible? I thought. Going to Mariupol had been a tough decision. I understood how quickly things could spiral out of control, but I chose to go anyway. And when I stepped aboard the train, in my mind I crossed the threshold dividing peace from war.

Or so I’d thought.

Hours later, there I was, sharing a sleeper berth with a young family, hurtling south, toward Mariupol and the war. Where would this war begin? When could I finally accept that I was in it? And when I found it, or it found me, would I be ready?

Ukrainian troops based near Mariupol in the town of Urzuf.

Ukrainian troops based near Mariupol in the town of Urzuf. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

I woke in the morning with the rising sun’s light coming in through the window, warming my face. I rubbed my eyes and sat up, my stomach rumbling. I wished right then that I had some food, noticing that my hunger had returned now that my mind had cleared of the roiling, confused emotions that had held my appetite at bay in the night. Life always seems so less dramatic and uncomplicated in the morning. That day was no exception.

I gingerly climbed down from my top bunk and saw that the man, woman, and child were all awake. They were dressed and had their bags packed and laid out like they were ready to disembark the train at a moment’s notice. The mother was feeding the infant out of a bottle while the man read a book.

Dobroye utro,” I said, wishing him a good morning.

“Dobroye utro,” the man said, looking up from his book with no expression at all. His wife smiled and said nothing.

I left the small cabin to find one of the train attendants, hoping for a cup of coffee. I hadn’t had anything to eat since a McDonald’s hamburger I grabbed at the train station the prior afternoon. I felt alert and good, actually, from the lack of food, as I often do. But I craved coffee.

You see, there is no sanctuary in war where it is safe to be sensitive. Being sensitive will kill you.

I leaned into the small galley at the end of the car near the connection and found the attendant reading a magazine and listening to the radio. She was still dressed in her light blue uniform with pale white leggings and a dark blue ascot, looking very proper with her makeup done and hair tightly pulled back.

Kofye?” I asked.

She said a few words back to me in Russian, one of which I recognized as “da.” Then she raised one finger, indicating in universal parlance that the coffee would be ready in a moment.

I nodded and smiled. “Spaceeba.”

I waited in the narrow hallway outside the attendant’s galley while she heated a cup of hot water for the instant coffee. I watched the rolling farmlands pass by out the long windows that lined the side of the car. The pastoral landscape looked very beautiful, with wide-open fields largely clear of trees and covered almost entirely by a golden yellow blanket of sunflowers. I thought for a moment that it resembled a cartoon picture out of some Dr. Seuss book, the colors were so bright and constant.

Surely, wars don’t exist here, I thought.

I was, of course, mistaken.

A Ukrainian soldier on patrol in the front-line town of Pisky in 2015.

A Ukrainian soldier on patrol in the front-line town of Pisky in 2015. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

I leaned back against the window, took my iPhone out of my pocket, and switched it out of airplane mode. The phone found reception, remarkably, and I opened up the map application to see where I was. When the phone located itself I felt a lump in my throat. We were skirting by Donetsk — the combined Russian-separatist redoubt. With the nebulousness of the war’s front lines, I had no idea whether we were inside Russian-controlled territory, or still within Kyiv’s reach.

This is crazy, I thought. Rail lines are important supply routes and communication lines — legitimate military targets. I thought about the Ukrainian troops I’d seen boarding this train, and I found myself seriously wondering if we might be in danger. What would stop the Russians from laying explosives on the tracks, or hijacking the train to steal its contents and kidnap the troops it carried?

As the warm sunshine soaked into my skin and I smelled the aroma of the coffee, I found it hard to take these thoughts seriously. I had no evidence right then that the war was for real. I could just as easily have been on a train ride through the Burgundy region of France. The war was only a rumor. An ugly and inconvenient abstraction.

A girl walked past me in the narrow hallway. I stood up straighter and leaned back against the window to give her room to pass. As she went by I thought about all the other civilians on this train. A chill passed through me.

Until then, I’d assumed that our innocence shielded us from danger. Recent events, however, hinted at a more cynical reality. The 298 dead bodies scattered among the tangled wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17), which had been shot down about 50 miles from where I was at that moment on the train, failed to inspire the world to react in any meaningful way to the war in Ukraine.

What would stop the Russians from laying explosives on the tracks, or hijacking the train to steal its contents and kidnap the troops it carried?

Whatever the reason for the West’s inaction after MH17, the lesson was clear. The world wasn’t ready to confront Russia about its crimes in Ukraine. With that in mind, I felt no great comfort on that train ride to Mariupol. Our innocence did not exempt us from the war.

What would it take, I wondered, to offend the world into intervening in Ukraine? I thought about some of the photos I had seen online of dead bodies scattered in the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines 777. Horrific images. Yet, a month and a half later the war was still going on, getting worse even. Russian President Vladimir Putin was now calling for the restoration of Novorossiya, an allusion to the 18th-century Russian empire of Catherine the Great that included parts of southern Ukraine. Russian tanks, weapons, and troops were streaming across the border into southeastern Ukraine, and I was on my way to a city of 500,000 people bracing for a possible tank battle and urban warfare.

On my iPhone map I looked at the spot where the wreckage of MH17 had fallen. It looked so close to the blinking blue dot that showed my location. Yet, the countryside passing by out the windows looked so beautiful. And that young family had seemed so innocent and good. But those symptoms of peace were a thin veneer, hiding the truth. We were heading toward a war. Still, without any real evidence, it was hard to believe it.

The attendant brought out my coffee in a ceramic cup, separately handing me a sugar packet and small stirring spoon.

“Spaceeba,” I said.

Pazhalooysta,” she replied.

I stood in the hallway and sipped slowly. My hunger pangs faded. My phone vibrated and I took it out to see that I had dozens of new emails, which were slowly trickling in as the data stream caught up. I didn’t want to deal with any of that right then, so I ignored them.

After finishing my coffee I returned the ceramic cup to the attendant. She smiled and half-nodded without saying anything. I went back to the sleeper berth and climbed to my bunk. As the morning advanced and the distance between the war and me diminished, I replayed in my mind a text I had received from my father the night before.

“Be careful,” he wrote. “Remember, this isn’t your war.”

Coastal defenses against a Russian amphibious assault in Mariupol.

Coastal defenses against a Russian amphibious assault in Mariupol. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

I woke when the train lurched to a stop. I sat up and saw that the family was gone and I was alone. I checked my phone to see where we were on the map. According to the schedule, we still had about an hour to go, and on the map it looked like we were still outside of Mariupol.

We’d stopped at a town named Volnovakha. The platform was overgrown with grass in places and warped with cracks and potholes. As the train idled, passengers disembarked, passing luggage down. A few people waited on the platform to pick someone up. It seemed as if there were an awful lot of people disembarking there for such a little stop.

Looking out the window I spotted a group of about 40 Ukrainian soldiers filing off the train, unloading equipment, ammo cases, and weapons bags. Most had the sleeves on their fatigue blouses rolled up for the summer heat. They were an eclectic lot. Some old, some young — tall and fat, skinny and short. They were clean-shaven and wore matching uniforms, a rarity for the Ukrainian military at that time. They looked relatively clean and fresh compared with the battle-worn troops I’d previously met in Slovyansk. These must be reinforcements, I thought. Maybe new recruits or soldiers fresh off of leave in Kyiv. Some stood around idly chatting with fully laden rucksacks at their feet while others unloaded equipment. Quite a few smoked cigarettes. And there were a few outliers standing alone, not talking to anyone, staring off while deep in thought.

One of the soldiers, probably the first sergeant, barked a command. All the men heaved their packs onto their shoulders and in pairs grabbed the straps of some of the larger bags, sharing the burden. They marched over to some drab green troop transport trucks, which were parked next to the small train station terminal. The civilians on the platform all stopped to observe the passing spectacle.

The war felt more real now for all of us there, I think. Some of the soldiers gave small nods to the people they passed. Others only stared at the boots of the man marching in front of him. I remembered Kipling’s haunting words — Boots, boots, boots, moving up and down again. Off they went and onto the trucks. The engines revved and rumbled, ready to go. A loud clank as metal bolts were pulled and the rear doors to the canvas-covered truck beds fell open and the men climbed up and onto the wooden benches lining the sides. Most sat leaning forward with their elbows on their knees, holding their Kalashnikovs in between their legs with both hands. Men and gear loaded, the doors banged shut and bolted, soldiers staring out the back like in so many movies. Looking at what was behind them, their minds fully consumed by what lay ahead.

I had seen soldiers going off to war before. Hell, I had been one, once. But, usually, when civilians send their soldiers to war, at least as I knew it, it was a hug or a handshake goodbye at the international departure lounge in an airport or on the tarmac at some military base in front of a C-17 prepped to travel halfway around the world. It wasn’t getting off a train and loading onto some old trucks for a half-hour drive to the front lines. I wasn’t used to seeing mothers stepping off a train cradling an infant in their arms a dozen yards away from soldiers unloading weapons and ammo, puffing away on cigarettes to calm their nerves before combat.

Now, yes now, I felt the weight and the darkness of what was happening here. It was starting to feel real. I snapped out of the momentary sanctity of the train ride and its deceptive normalcy. The train whistle blew and the car jerked forward as the connections took hold down the line of the train. The train slowly gathered speed and moved away from Volnovakha. My head rotated slowly as I kept my eyes on the soldiers in the backs of the trucks. When they were no longer in view I looked forward out the window and went back to watching the landscape slide by. The sun was higher and the colors of the sunflower fields were a bit washed out. It wasn’t quite as beautiful as in the morning. Not much longer now. I was close.

In the early days of the war, Ukraine's military was a ragtag force, depleted by years of corruption.

In the early days of the war, Ukraine’s military was a ragtag force, depleted by years of corruption. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Several days later, on Sept. 4, 2014, I had dinner at a hilltop restaurant on the edge of Mariupol. The sky was clear that night and the stars were out. I had one hand wrapped around my beer, which I sipped often. I was going through the beer quickly and had quite a few as the night went on.

In the distance, toward the dark void in the direction of Donetsk, there was a storm. Flashes of light revealed stop-motion images of the blackened horizon. The percussive thuds rolled in seconds later, out of sync with the light show like the delay between lightning and thunder. But this was not a storm of wind and rain. It was one of fire and steel.

Out there, a battle raged. Artillery, rockets, mortars, tanks. Soldiers killing and dying. And there I was at my perch on the balcony of an open-air restaurant, safely cocooned by the miles, casually sipping on a beer with a front-row seat to the grimmest of spectacles.

The mood at the restaurant was somber. Through the glass walls of the restaurant, I saw servers sitting in silent rapture before television screens. Reporters spoke of a possible cease-fire the next day.

The terrace was mostly empty, save for some old men sitting outside with me, watching the occasional flashes of light in the cloudless night sky. They were transfixed by what they saw, sipping their vodka or beer as the rumble of the far-off artillery and rockets washed over us like a wave calmly spilling itself on a beach.

I ordered beer after beer and as the alcohol caught up I felt like the world was closing in on my thoughts, blocking out everything except for the storm of steel. From my elevated perch I looked across rows of city lights within which half a million people were nervously hunkered down in their homes, not knowing if they would wake up the next morning to the sound of Russian tank treads clanking down the street. I found myself thinking about the same possibility, realizing, quite suddenly and soberly, that I had no idea what to do in such a situation.

I wasn’t used to seeing mothers stepping off a train cradling an infant in their arms a dozen yards away from soldiers unloading weapons and ammo, puffing away on cigarettes to calm their nerves before combat.

Looking down on all those homes and apartment buildings, I imagined the life story playing out behind each twinkling city light. What do parents say to their children in such a moment? What comforts do young lovers find in each other’s embrace? Would those who were alive for the Nazi and Soviet invasions be reliving memories and emotions, which they’d wanted to forget?

From where I was the war was just lightning and thunder. The people in its inevitable path were nothing more to me than twinkling city lights. I was a spectator to the destruction of lives, with the insulation of distance. A silent observer like a god on Mount Olympus — or, like an Air Force pilot orbiting high above the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On that night in Mariupol, as the battle distantly played out, I was in a familiar holding pattern, orbiting safely above and beyond the danger. But like a plane that must eventually return to land when it runs low on fuel, I knew that my elevation was temporary. The safety I perceived was an illusion.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, I regained the earth between missions behind the fortified walls of whatever base I was at. At night, in my bunk, there was the vague notion of the enemy lurking out there in the ether beyond the base perimeter. And, occasionally, that enemy would lob a rocket or a mortar at us. Sometimes, someone would die. But there was always the feeling, or the illusion, of safety. Yes, I lived hyperaware, always with an eye toward the nearest hardened shelter or ditch where you could take cover if the air raid sirens went off. But the idea of the base actually being overrun? Well, that wasn’t a possibility I ever took seriously. As members of the US military, we were always on the strong side of the fight.

As I watched the far-off battle, I found myself retreating into comfortable, old habits from Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to re-create that illusion of safety I had felt behind the fortifications at bases like Bagram and Balad. But those old habit patterns didn’t apply to the war in Ukraine. The enemy was at the gates and I was in danger. There were no American drones orbiting overhead to keep watch — only Russian drones choosing their next artillery target. No Phalanx close-in weapons system to sound an air raid alarm when an artillery shell or rocket was incoming. No, this was different. This was war by someone else’s rules, and I was in its path. I was in danger. And I felt scared.

A drawing by a child refugee at a hospital in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro.

A drawing by a child refugee at a hospital in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

When I’d had enough to drink, I called my driver, a young man named Vasiliy, and told him I was ready to be picked up. Minutes later he arrived. He had the radio turned off when I got in his little hatchback.

“Back to the hotel,” I said.

“Okay.”

We took off down the dark, sparsely lit streets. There was hardly another car on the road. No one was out walking tonight, and I spotted only stray dogs as we zipped along, descending back to town. With the radio off and in the darkness, I was attuned to the hum of the wheels, the minute creaks of the suspension and the sound of Vasiliy pressing the pedals as he shifted gears. Noticing details that might be lost in the day and light, my mind was made alert to subtle audible clues by the night and my knowledge of what was coming.

“It seems tomorrow could be bad,” Vasiliy said, breaking the silence.

“Yes, it looks that way.”

He pulled out a pack of cigarettes.

“Want one?”

“No thanks.”

“Do you mind?”

“Not at all. Go for it.”

He rolled down his window a few inches, and I felt the cool night air stream inside. Every so often Vasiliy flicked his ashes out the cracked window.

“Do you have a way out?” he asked.

“No. Not really. I suppose I’ll find a way west along the coast if things fall apart.”

“Call me if you need. I’ll drive you.”

“Okay.”

“If the Russians come, they may ask questions about your passport.”

“I plan on leaving before it comes to that.”

“Yes, but when it happens, it will happen quickly. You should be ready to go.”

“I understand.”

“Good. I’ll have my phone with me all day. Call me anytime.”

“Thanks.”

Back at the hotel I undressed and lay in bed. I felt comfortable and clean lying naked in the light coolness of the sheets. My head was spinning from the beer and with questions and imagined scenarios. I wondered if I would look out the window of my room in the morning and see tanks rolling down the street along the beach. If the Russians did break through the Ukrainian lines, would they come this far? Would they clear out the hotel? What would happen to my friends? Had they found a way out? How would the Russians treat foreign journalists? Would it be safer to hole up in this hotel or try to flee west down the coast? If the city fell, how would I get back to Kyiv?

I thought about my friend James Foley for a moment. No way it could get that bad, I convinced myself. But a chill went down my spine anyway.

As I lay there waiting for sleep to take me, I truly had no idea what tomorrow would bring. And I had no idea what to do.

The front-line trenches in the town of Shyrokyne, just outside of Mariupol.

The front-line trenches in the town of Shyrokyne, just outside of Mariupol. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

The next day — Sept. 5, 2014 — it seemed that all was lost. The combined Russian-separatist army was poised to break through the Ukrainian lines and overrun the city. People were packing as much as they could into their cars and fleeing. Restaurants were shut down. The streets grew empty.

But the invasion of Mariupol never happened. As if ripped straight from the pages of All Quiet on the Western Front, the sounds of war went silent. A cease-fire had been signed.

Passing drivers honked their horns. People cheered in celebration and strangers hugged one another. Hotels swelled with wedding parties, following through on celebrations put off for weeks by the fighting. It was like New Year’s Eve times a million.

The Ukrainians had held their ground. In Minsk, Belarus — more than 700 miles north of Mariupol — Russian and Ukrainian envoys had struck a cease-fire deal. Then, in an instant, the two armies stopped shooting at each other.

The absurdity of war.

After the fighting had stopped, Vasiliy and I toured the still smoldering battlefields outside of Mariupol. We started just beyond the Ukrainian checkpoints. The charred ruins of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and men dotted the rolling green fields where yellow and purple flowers were in bloom.

The first were only a mile or so beyond the Ukrainian lines. We saw them in the tree line at the edge of a field.

Some of them were ripped apart like used firecrackers. Charred, burnt, and twisted. Others frozen in the way they had died like plaster molds of bodies buried by ash in Pompeii, revealing the terror of the moment and the motion of their deaths in static poses no artist could imitate.

We pulled over on the side of the dirt road. While I had a look, Vasiliy leaned against the hood of the car. He lit a cigarette and waited.

You walk along the road and see them scattered on its sides like trash thrown from a car. At first it doesn’t seem real. Human lives so carelessly and randomly discarded. But you slowly accept what you see. And the smell. There is a smell so awful you can’t ever seem to clean it from your skin. It waters your eyes, seeps deep into your pores. You’ve never smelt it before, but you recognize your first smell of death like you’ve smelled it a thousand times.

Strangely, though, the dead are an empty fascination. There is no horror. That’s not until later. You accept what you see as if you’re looking at mummies in the British Museum.

You remember that one, though. The one lying on his back with his hands frozen in death the way he held them in his final moment. Out in front, palms facing away, as if he could stop whatever it was that had killed him. Judging by the rest of him — his skin mostly burned away, half his skull missing, burned-away lips revealing marble white teeth — you know he did not die well. Yet, what’s left of his face you’ll always remember. Even though the skin is black and brown and the flesh warped by fire, you can still, without overly relying on your imagination, see the man’s pain.

You think later of a Monet painting and how hard it is to know what you’re looking at from up close. The colors are just noise. But as you step away it starts to make sense. The incoherent dabs of paint coalesce into an image that you recognize.

Likewise, up close with the dead you only observe colors, shapes, and smells. You imprint the memories for later. And not until you’ve stepped away from the battlefield, in terms of both distance and time, do your memories of the dead coalesce into a tableau that hurts you.

But it’s just noise for now.

I walked back to the car.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Vasiliy said nothing. He looked toward the bodies and took one last drag of his cigarette, exhaling a long banner of smoke before he tossed the butt to the ground and put it out with the twisting toe of his boot.

“Yeah, what the hell,” he said. “Let’s get going.”

Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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