When the Army buys a vehicle, they can reasonably expect a service life of 20 to 30 years. The key to a vehicle lasting that long is intense and ongoing maintenance. From the operator (that’s “driver” to you civilians) to depot or manufacturer levels, maintenance is an ongoing process. Sure, you’re familiar with things like changing the oil or rebuilding engines. But one of the most important things is also one of the most mundane. Washing the vehicle.
Now, when you wash your car, you usually concentrate on the finish. In the Army, painted surface is pretty much the least important. Changing sheet metal is easy. It’s the running gear and suspension, and engine compartment that really need to be cleaned.
Army vehicles tend to get muddy. Very muddy. And tracked vehicles, especially, are great at getting incredibly viscous mud stuck in very hard to access places.
When a unit return from the field, usually the first stop is the post “wash rack” and “bird bath.” Each installation has a special wash point. The wash rack serves two purposes. The first, obvious one, is to clean military vehicles. The second, less visible one is to ensure that contaminated, oily water is properly treated and that the run-off doesn’t contaminate either the soil or water supply.
The first step is to run the vehicle through the bird bath. The bird bath is much like a swimming pool with ramps at both ends. The water helps loosen some of the mud stuck in the running gear and suspension. In addition, fire hoses or monitors alongside are used to spray down the tracks and knock loose even more mud.
There’s usually only one birdbath, and a run through the bath isn’t enough to get the vehicles fully clean. So, there are usually about fifteen to twenty stalls where the actual hard work of washing a vehicle takes place. Usually these stalls or stations are equipped with one or two fire hoses or at a minimum, a heavy duty garden hose. Where it takes an hour or so to wash your own car, it can take all day to get a tracked vehicle clean, inside and out. It’s simply astonishing how much much can accumulate between the tracks and the hull of a Bradley or a tank and just how resistant it is to being dislodged. You have to get down on your hands and knees and dig around in there to get every last little bit. And you have to do it not just because the army wants clean vehicles, but because that mud, left in place, would eventually infiltrate and destroy the seals that keep the suspension’s lubricants in. Dirt also hides other fluid leaks from the engine and transmission.
It’s not so bad washing a track in the summer. But washing a track in the winter… not so fun. Dismounts in mech infantry units like to bitch about how easy the track crews have it, but they sure seem to disappear when it comes time to wash a track in freezing weather.
It used to be each battalion motor pool had its own small washrack. Most still have them, but the restrictions due to possible oil contamination in the water have rendered them pretty much off limits.