by Ken Hoffman
I remember the day I showed up at the MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) to begin my journey in the military. I was a 17-year-old kid with fire in my eyes and a dream of becoming a soldier. All the John Wayne movies had stirred my adventurous spirit so, undeterred by my age, I joined the military.
From basic training, I went to Infantry School, Jump School, and finally, to Jungle Warfare. I was assigned to a combat-ready Florida National Guard Unit and later served in the 76th division Army Reserve in a Fire Support Team.
My service had been a great time. I got to play with some awesome equipment that most people only see on television or in books.
One of my first vehicles was the LARC-15, an amphibious landing vehicle. What fun it was to go bounding onto the beach with this 15-ton, 600HP beast during drill just to watch the beach-goers scatter off their blankets! Next up was the M151A2 jeep, M35 2-1/2 ton transport, and the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier. I also had the opportunity to make a lot of noise with the M-16 assault rifle, M60 machine gun, Browning 50-cal., M67 frag grenades, LAW rockets, and many other weapons throughout my service and, later, during my law enforcement career.
Of course, along with the training, came the endless stories. Over the last decade, I have retold these stories many times to my now 15-year old son, Jesse.
By no surprise, he caught the military bug and has a keen interest in military history as far back as the Revolutionary War. He has paid close attention to all the stories his Dad has told him.
Now, Jesse has enteredhigh school. At 15 years old, he is just two years younger than when I joined the service.
So, on the eve of his entry into high school, I wanted to give him a special experience — one that was just for Jesse and me. One that would bond us together during a time when most fathers and sons start to drift. That’s when I happened across DriveTanks.com.
After reviewing their phenomenal website, I realized one thing. We had to go.
A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY
After a phone call to DriveTanks.com and turning in a few frequent flyer miles, I booked a trip to Texas, the home of DriveTanks.
Scheduling our visit was so easy. The personalized attention I received was great. I told them my budget, and we went through all my options. Together, we designed a plan and put it on the books. It couldn’t have been any easier. Since DriveTanks is 1.5 hours from San Antonio, Texas, I rented a convertible to enjoy the warm Texas air on our road trip to the “Ranch.”
I had reserved a package that included a day of driving tanks, shooting machine guns, and even firing a Vietnam-era flamethrower! I was happy to learn that rather than the single bunk and a scratchy blanket I had in Basic Training along with 100 other guys, DriveTanks’ “Barracks” is actually a luxury suite with WWII decor and two queen-size beds. The package was “all inclusive” with a professional chef to cook the meals as well as a personal guide for all of our reserved events. At 52 years old, I didn’t miss sleeping in a foxhole and eating MREs.My son probably would have liked that, but I have softened up over the years and like some creature comforts.
Brent Oxley is the owner of the 18,000-acre “Ox Ranch,” home to DriveTanks. It is famous for whitetail deer and turkey hunting, photo safaris, and more than 60 additional species available for hunt. There are thousands of native and exotic wildlife free-ranging across the Texas Hill Country — some just feet away from you at times. We encountered ostriches, zebras, blackbucks, elk, feral hogs, red stags, and whitetail deer. The whole place has rivers, streams, and looks somewhat like the African Sahara. It is the perfect backdrop for DriveTanks.
The co-owner and CEO of Drive Tanks is Todd DeGidio, Brent’s father. Todd is a former 10th Special Forces Green Beret and retired Houston PD helicopter pilot. He has keen attention for detail, and a command over his staff that doesn’t seem to stray much from his military roots. This translates in a way that you don’t just take a mere ride in a tank — you get a full experience that includes a history lesson that includes the background and specifics of the equipment you are using.
Todd has acquired full-functioning tanks and vehicles that are so well restored that they could easily have just been placed into service. There are no light rounds in this artillery! You get the same load as if you were on the field of battle. All cadres with whom we worked were professional and have an extensive knowledge and passion for the post they occupy at DriveTanks. As a guest — and a father — I appreciated seeing that safety is the full team’s number one priority.
As I chatted with Todd (who was more than generous with his knowledge and time), three things struck me: First, he doesn’t want to provide “just a tank ride.” He is trying to preserve history. He wants his facility to be a “living museum.” You can feel, touch, drive, and shoot everything at DriveTanks.
One of the best parts of the trip for Jesse was to climb in, on, and around the tanks. The simple instruction from our guide Trevor was, “Hey Jesse, these are live weapons so don’t push any buttons. You might start one up!” I don’t think there is another place, anywhere, where you can feel open to explore like we did at DriveTanks.
Todd shared his expansion plans with me, all of which is executed with the same discipline as a military mission. Todd mentioned the idea of a “Disney World of Tanks.” That is his idea of the experiential evolution of DriveTanks. This includes: erecting more buildings such as a “mock” French village where the tanks were in theatre at the time, an “explosives package” to provide incendiaries and pyrotechnics while driving the tanks, and more automatic weapons for the range. He is also in the process of purchasing eight more tanks, rare vehicles, and artillery that will expand their offerings. I have no doubt that when we return next year (oh yes, I have already been instructed by Jesse that we must return), he will have expanded so much that it will be a completely new experience.
Lastly, while Ox Ranch is clearly a high-end hunting resort, Todd explained that he still wants to be accessible to everyone. They will retain affordable options for every budget. My suggestion?Save up and do as much as possible. There is no other place like this, anywhere.
FINALLY, OUR “BOOTS ON THE GROUND”
After fording a river crossing in the rental car, Spencer Tesanovich, Head of Veteran Affairs, met us at the gate. He treated us like arriving generals on base! As we talked, we learned Spencer had met the owners after they purchased their first “Easy Eight” Sherman. At the time when DriveTanks was just a twinkle in Todd’s and Brent’s eye, the duo offered the position to Spencer. Spencer said he replied as most young men would. “Who could turn that down?” he asked.
Spencer escorted us to the “Tank Barn” that houses the largest selection of working vehicles I have ever seen in private hands. Here were all of the company’s the “big guns” like the Sherman M4A3E8, Russian T-34, German Leopard 1A4, British Chieftain, Abbott FV433, Soviet BMP-1 troop carrier, and even a WWII German Kettenkrad tracked motorcycle! They also had a German PAK-40 antitank gun and various mortars. Everywhere we looked around the barn, there were small displays with uniforms, equipment, and pictures. We even saw the original uniform worn by Michael Pena in the movie, “Fury!”
If you like firearms like I do, you will drool over the variety of weapons — all available for use on the firing range. The walls were covered with the fully automatic machine guns including Browning .50 caliber M2s, M60s, and SAWs. They also had working versions of WWII weapons including the grease guns, Thompson SMG, M1 carbines and Garands, and even an MG-42 machine gun. The staff allowed us pick up all the weapons — the highly qualified range officer, Glen, ensures they are all safe for handling. Jesse, who plays some WWII video and online games, was shocked by the weight of the “real things” (score one for taking kids out to see the real stuff!).
The DriveTanks crew went “all-out” on the “Tank Barn.” It includes a lounge with free drinks, full-size video screens, and war relics, all to enjoy while guests hang out and rest between activities.
Different cadre took us through the barn describing in detail all the vehicles, heavy artillery and firearms. It was like a personal museum tour.
Finally, we went out to the tank range. We got our briefing before Jesse climbed into the cockpit of a German Leopard 1A4 tank. While he got situated at the controls, I climbed into the officer’s position in the turret. Wired up with headsets, he communicated with Riley who instructed.Jesse did all the driving — Riley never touched the controls.
The course took us over dunes, rocks, and foxholes. We forded a river and went up a waterfall. The course goes past the firing range, which in the future will be mocked up as Caen, the French village near Normandy where a fierce battle was fought against the German Panzer division. Todd told me they will be animating this in the future with incendiary devices, smoke grenades, and pyrotechnics. Driving a tank through this will be even more amazing than it is now.
The Leopard was surprisingly easy to operate, similar to a car except weighing about 60 tons and filled with gritty power. Jesse beamed when got out of the tank! The exact look was more like “experiential overload.”
We then headed to the Howitzer Range. Jesse’s grandfather served in artillery during Korea, so this experience was close to our family. It is impossible to describe the sheer force of a 155mm gun firing, but as the smoke cleared, we were all grinning when we watched theround land in a cloud of dust on the opposite hillside, more than a mile away.
After a delicious lunch of wild game meats, salads, and home-made baked goods, we headed to the machine gun range. Again, the experience of power and force behind these weapons for a kid who had only experienced video games, was eye-opening. It gave him a new appreciation and understanding of the dangers, fears, and losses of true war. We had the opportunity to shoot, full-auto, at least half-a-dozen weapons from WWII to present.
But the topper was the Vietnam-era flamethrower. After Jesse unloaded a stream of blazing diesel onto a target, it was not hard for him to understand why, due to its ferocity, that its use in warfare is of questionable morality.
If you have the opportunity to stay on the ranch, do it. It multiplies the cool factor by 10. You get a personal guide who drives you everywhere, gourmet meals made with exotic game meats like giraffe salami, axis, and other game. You also get to use the lodge with open bar, game room, hot tub, and swimming pool. We toured the back areas of the ranch to see paleontologist-verified dinosaur tracks, pet a giraffe, and feed the kangaroos. It really is “free-range” with no gates or walls. In fact, one of the “rules” is that you must close the rope gate for the short walk to “The Barracks.” If you happen to forget to latch the rope, the 1.500-pound bison tend to wander in and eat the grass and crush the sprinkler system. I guess they might peek in the Barracks’ windows at night, too. So, we made sure to latch the rope gates!
So, did I accomplish my mission to connect with my son?Undoubtedly.
He watched me hang out with other vets, tell stories, and share the camaraderie of serving. My son and I bonded over shared interests and funny experiences like chasing an armadillo, the “touchy” kangaroo, or just reliving the day’s events.
With the encouragement of the cadre, Todd and myself, I watched Jesse overcome his fear of some of the weapons and the look of pride on his face when he did.
The fact is — and it’s hard to believe — this experience occurred over just a 72-hour trip, including flights. I was worried that the equipment we signed up to drive and shoot would be too short, and we might be bored or disappointed. But, no way. There was so much to do see and experience.
My son has now seen what tanks really do when they fire a round. He got to sit in the same seat that WWII tankers sat and feel some of what they might have felt. He got to understand how war can really be and not just the false experience he got get from video games. A full auto MG-42 kicks like a mule! The inside of a tank is hot, dusty, and sometimes painful especially if you don’t duck. Jesse now has respect for soldiers and the missions they serve.
The best part of the trip for me was when we were on the plane home. Jesse looked up at me, said, “Thanks, Dad” and fell asleep on my shoulder from exhaustion.
This was an epic adventure, and I would recommend it to anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation as me with a teenage son with whom you want to connect. The reward was priceless compared to the investment I made in time and money.