"When we were back at Fort Hood in Texas," recalls Army Spec. 4 Duane Everroad, we all qualified on the gunnery range on the same tank. We put all the good parts in it from other tanks and it was zeroed in pretty good."
Here in Germany, he says, leaning on an M60 tank at this Army training area, "maintenance is much better. You've got to be quick and accurate to qualify. All our crews in 18 tanks qualifed."
"When I came as a platoon leader in 1974." says Capt. Dave Gross of the same armored company, "we didn't know a Russian T54 tank from a T62. Now everybody here knows. The training is good and were in the field a lot."
The comments of these soldiers testify to a marked improvement in combat readiness of the 200,000-man U.S. 7th Army in Europe from the state of the post-Vietnam disarray in the early 1970s.
The Army still has plenty of flaws - gaps in its defenses caused by lack of attention for too many years to anti-aircraft defense and chemical and electronic warfare. But in comparison to where it was just five or six years ago, "It hardly seems like the same army," says Lt. Gen. David E. Ott, 7th Corps commander.
"I don't believe I've ever seen the Army in better shape," adds Col. R. S. Briggs, chief of the Logistics Readiness Division in Europe.
The reason cited by experienced officers and enlisted men are varied.
"Generally better moral due to improve living conditions for most, though not all, soldier here.
Introduction of an all-volunteer force that appears willing to be led, capable of learning and laced with fewer trouble-makers than draft armies of five years ago.
Large amounts of new weapons, equipment and spare parts that have flowed into Europe in the last two years, helping readiness, training and maintenance.
The 7th Army now has all its authorized tanks and major weapon systems. All 230 Cobra helicopter gunships equipped with TOW antitank missiles are here, though others for backup units in the United States are still to be delivered.
Newer model M60 tanks with special night equipment that avoids giving away position are arriving. Eight-inch Howitzer batteries also have been expanded from four to six guns each. The 155mm HOwitzer batteries also will be expanded from six to eight guns.
Armored brigade commander Col. John Kirk says spare parts availablity has gone from 55 percent to 90 percent in recent years. Armored battallion commanders say generally they can field 90 percent of their equipment on two hours notice.
Perhaps most important, the U.S. Army is no longer facing two fronts. With withdrawal from South Korea under way, the European battlefield is all that's left and 22 of the 24 active and reserve Army divisions in the United States and overseas are ticketed for Europe, generals here say.
"Intellectually," says one colonel, "we have made the decision that we are in Europe for the long haul - 20 or 30 years maybe. The one-year-at-a-time thing that meant you never fixed up the barracks is over."
The Army in Germany also is bigger than generally realized. At any one time now, according to the Personnel chief, Brig. Gen. William H. Fitts, the 7th Army is from 3,000-7,000 men over its authorized peacetime strength of 299,000 for Europe, with 190,000 of those in Germany.
The top U.S. Army commander in Europe, Gen. George S. Blanchard, says the increase results from his request to move from peacetime to wartime authorization levels to help off set the considerably larger Warsaw Pact forces facing the United States and its allies across the German border.
By all accounts, the 7th Army also is training more today than in the past 10 years, an effort largely credited to the NATO commander, Gen. Alexander Haig, and to Blanchard.
Officers say, however, that the lag of the early 1970s has not been entirely overcome, particularly in some kinds of equipment.
Warsaw Pact forces are judged far ahead of the United States in chemical warfare offensive and defensive equipment and the Army is now beginning to try to catch up. Until commanders, however, say they still are woefully short of mass decontamination equipment.
Also just arrived are new Army security detachments which are apparently meant to begin catching up on what some specialists believe is a "scandalous" laxity in the Army in recent years in waking up to Soviet abilities to jam U.S. communications. The Soviets also are vulnerable to jamming, but the U.S. Army, sources say, lacks equipment to do the job.
Many officers claim the Army also has tended to ignore the steady growth of Soviet air power over the battlefield in recent years, magnifying U.S. failure to produce effective and mobile antiaircraft weapons - a major strength of Soviet forces.
U.S. infantry troops are still equiped with the Redeye ground-to-air, heat-seeking missile, which normally gives a soldier a shot at a jet only once it has passed overhead and the hot engine exhausted is exposed.