It's been 70 years and at least three wars since Vernon Foster has been around a tank.
That ended Thursday afternoon when the 97-year-old Hereford resident met with five soldiers, who specialize in the latest tank technology, at Aberdeen Proving Ground. They, in turn, met a veteran who commanded a tank platoon in World War II.
The soldiers showed Foster the Army's tracked Bradley Fighting Vehicle and M1 Abrams tank. The vehicles were parked in a lot at the Aberdeen Test Center building – Foster had asked APG officials if he could visit the post to see modern-day armor.
The soldiers who met with Foster are assigned to the Aberdeen Test Center, part of the Army Test and Evaluation Command at APG. Two top officials in ATEC and the ATC shook hands and chatted briefly with Foster.
Maj. Brian Mack, who was scheduled to be promoted to lieutenant colonel during a ceremony Thursday after the tour, gave Foster a commemorative "commander's coin," to show ATC's appreciation for Foster.
"Thank you for your service and your sacrifice, and your men's sacrifice, during World War II," Mack said.
Foster walked with the aid of a cane and the support of a friend, Bobby Prigel, and he sat in a chair most of the time he was meeting with the soldiers.
The former Army captain stood and saluted, however, when Maj. Gen. Daniel Karbler, commander of ATEC, approached him.
"It's an honor for me to be here," Foster said.
"Oh no, it's my honor," the general replied.
Karbler asked Foster what he thought of the Abrams tank – Foster, who was a first lieutenant during the majority of his service in France and Germany in 1944 and 1945, commanded an M4 Sherman tank, the workhorse of Allied armor during World War II.
The Abrams has been the military's main battle tank since the 1980s, although most Americans got their first look at the heavily-armored and heavily-armed beast during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
"It's huge, compared to what I'm used to, but it's good to have it when you need it," Foster said.
Tank components are among the variety of new military equipment that passes through the Aberdeen Test Center.
"[We] make sure what we give the soldiers is going to work, it's going to be safe for them to operate," Karbler said.
Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Richardson, a 27-year veteran of the Army, who served during Desert Storm and in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq, described the capabilities of the Bradley and the Abrams.
The Bradley, which was also heavily used during Desert Storm, serves as a troop carrier and scout vehicle. It has a diesel engine, a 25mm main gun and can fire anti-armor missiles.
"If I had to have a vehicle to fight with and I didn't have my tank, I'd take one of these," Richardson said.
Several versions of the Abrams have been introduced since the tank entered service in 1980. The tank on display Thursday has a 120mm main cannon, side launchers that can fire various forms of grenades such as smoke grenades to hide the vehicle or white phosphorus to kill infantry, as well as an M2 .50-caliber machine gun.
It has a computerized fire control system used to target enemy vehicles and measure factors such as wind and vehicle speed that affect accuracy.
"You should kill a target every time you pull a round," Richardson said.
The tank has a crew of four – a commander, loader, gunner and driver – and it carries 40 rounds for the main gun. It can also shoot depleted uranium penetrator rounds, and there is a layer of depleted uranium that enhances the armor on the front of the tank.
"It's the densest, strongest material made in the world right now," Richardson said.
Richardson, 45, is a tank master gunner, making him an expert. He was a 19-year-old loader on an Abrams tank in Desert Storm when his unit faced the remnants of the Iraqi armor forces, the few tanks that had not been destroyed during weeks of coalition airstrikes that preceded the land invasion of Kuwait and southern Iraq.
He said the days leading up to the invasion were "the scariest time in my life." He and his fellow soldiers expected to face dug-in, battle-hardened Iraqi troops, but they ended up simply mopping up the remains.
Foster visited APG with his son, Brian, also of Hereford, and a second friend, Steve Belkoff. He said he has not been around a tank since World War II.
"This is an opportunity to get back and get among guys that are still doing it," he said of working with tanks. "It's an education."