Pfc. Jason Irizarry: Tank Driver

Tanker — Irizarry drove an M1 Abrams tank altered to look like a Russian T-80. Photo Credit: US Army

According to Liberty University Military Affairs, there are more than 250 student veterans studying on campus and another 17,000 online. Some of them may have been trained by Pfc. Jason Irizarry.

In 1998, Irizarry, a Florida native, joined the U.S. Army three years after high school and was deployed to Fort Irwin, Calif., home of the Army’s National Training Center (NTC). The NTC has two home units that serve as “Opposing Forces” (OpFor) and fight mock battles with regular Army troops that cycle through to train for desert warfare.

The OpFor are arranged as troops from the fictional country of Krasnovia and use U.S. vehicles made to look like Russian military vehicles. “Krasnovian” troops use Russian tactics “plus one.” In other words, if a Russian tank platoon has four tanks, the OpFor would have five — that way the OpFor were as tough as possible. Irizarry loved playing the “bad guys.”

“OpFor was a blast!” Irizarry said. “When you do combat for training, it’s basically a huge laser tag game with real weapons.”

Troops and vehicles used MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement Systems) gear that fired blank rounds and lasers to simulate live fire.

“You have artillery simulators, so when you fire your tank, you hear the ‘boom,’ but nothing goes downrange except for a laser,” he said. “So going out there was a lot of fun, especially when you’re going against people who are under a lot of stress.”

Irizarry remembers one time, before he became a tanker, when he was driving a scout Humvee altered to look like a Russian vehicle. His Humvee engaged and “killed” a couple of vehicles and discovered their Tactical Operations Command (TOC) vehicle. The TOC vehicle fled, with Irizarry’s Humvee in pursuit, back to the other unit’s command tent — their headquarters — which they should never have done. Irizarry’s vehicle “killed” the unit’s entire command.

“One thing I love about the training is when you make a mistake, it’s not fatal,” he said.

Irizarry served at the NTC until February 2001 when he had to leave the Army because of injuries. After the events of September 11, 2001, he desperately tried to reenlist but was “very angry” when the Army refused. Troops stationed at Fort Irwin were given the choice to deploy to Iraq, and Irizarry would have been one of those volunteers. Still, he takes solace in the fact that he trained the first troops to deploy.

“That was my pride is that I helped train those guys who went out there,” Irizarry said.

After moving to Virginia, Irizarry enrolled at Liberty in the spring 2007. He met the late Dr. Jerry Falwell for the first time while at the dry cleaners and was able to speak with him throughout the semester as a member of the Chamber Singers. He was struck by how much Falwell cared for people.

“He was an amazing individual,” Irizarry said. “I weep for the generation who didn’t get a chance to benefit from his wisdom and from him.”

Irizarry said he is “very proud” of the work that Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife Becki Falwell have done for the university in the following years and that Falwell Jr. has been really “living up to his legacy.”

As a theater student, Irizarry is grateful to the theater department for “introducing a new aspect to (his) life.” He is not entirely sure what to do when he graduates, but he wants it to involve acting and relating to people.

“I love people, and I love to express myself different ways,” Irizarry said. “Being on stage or on screen is just a great way to do it.”

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