Thursday, August 24, 2006
Airmen drive convoys from Kuwait to Interior of Iraq
Airmen risk their lives to make mission happen
August 17, 2006
By Staff Sgt. Ryan Hansen
386th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait – The mission they have is challenging, critical, grueling and worst of all, treacherous. Yet for more than two years now Airmen have been driving convoys for the Army on some of the most dangerous roads in the world.
From this sprawling Army camp to the border of Southern Iraq, all the way to the most Northern reaches of a country roughly the size of California, members of the 586th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron put their lives on the line every day for the mission.
These 300 plus hard-charging, combat Airmen of the 586th ELRS are assigned to one of two medium truck detachments – the 70th MTD or the 424th MTD. They provide the life blood to our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines at forward operating bases down range by delivering the band-aids, beans and bullets they need daily. Since January 2005 these transporters have driven more than 5.8 million miles in Iraq.
“I have an incredible amount of respect for what our troops do,” said Lt. Col. Jeanne Hardrath, 586th ELRS commander, who is deployed from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C. “They’re highly motivated and take great pride in what they do everyday and it just blows me away. They are absolutely incredible.”
These Airmen arrived here for their six-month rotation immediately after attending a five-and-a-half week training course at Camp Bullis, Texas, which included live-fire training at Fort Hood, Texas, and another week-and-a-half validation course at Fort Sill, Okla. The two months of training, although long and physically demanding, was much needed. There they learned the skills they would need to accomplish the mission under the leadership and watchful eye of the Army.
“The training was very intense and very hard,” said Tech. Sgt. Greg Ryan, a convoy commander with the 424th MTD, who is deployed from Scott Air Force Base, Ill. “To go through something that, which was like basic training all over again, was an eye opener. But it was very important.”
The courses not only gave these Airmen invaluable training, it also helped them build a bond with each other. By the time they hit the AOR, they were a tightly knit unit. This is key because at some point they will have to rely on one another in a combat situation.
“Our lives depend on each other out here,” said Amn. Kyle Young, a vehicle operator with the 70th MTD, who is deployed from Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash. “We’re like a big family. When you’re out on the road for weeks with each other, we’ll have little feuds and stuff, but it’s just tough love. We’d do anything for each other.”
Convoy missions are not like your typical family road trips. They take days to plan, hours to load and weeks to complete. A short mission can last anywhere from one-to-two weeks while a long mission can take three weeks.
The person ultimately responsible for getting the supplies to their destination is the convoy commander, which is typically a master or technical sergeant. Not only is he or she charged with getting cargo down range, but they’re also responsible for the lives of more than 50 people.
“When you think about a convoy commander … they have an awesome amount of responsibility,” said Chief Master Sgt. Tony Killion, detachment chief for the 70th MTD, who is deployed from Scott Air Force Base, Ill. “They’re responsible for the lives about 15 crew members, another 30 civilian truck drivers and the gun trucks crews. It’s incredible.”
A typical set-up for a convoy is what Airmen here call a “five and two.” This includes seven up-armored, heavy-duty, long-haul trucks spread out among thirty or so “whites,” as the civilian tractor-trailers are known because of their white trucks.
Five of the trucks are loaded with supplies and mixed in with the rest of the convoy while two of the vehicles travel without trailers, known as “bobtails.”
One “bobtail” acts as the lead vehicle in the convoy. This truck is the tip of the spear and needs to be more maneuverable as its leading the convoy through Iraq. The second “bobtail” follows at the rear of the pack.
“I make sure the convoy stays intact and that everything is going smoothly,” said Tech. Sgt. Rob Wilson, an assistant convoy commander with the 424th MTD, who is deployed from Scott Air Force Base, Ill.
Airmen push their convoys anywhere from 12-to-20 hours a day to complete their mission. Keeping these trucks running smoothly after all the damage the pot-holed filled roads put on them is another challenge the squadron faces daily. The two dets both have dedicated maintenance troops to provide upkeep on the vehicles and every convoy that goes outside the wire includes one dedicated maintainer.
“Keeping these vehicles in working order can be pretty tough,” said Staff Sgt. Thomas Kessler, a vehicle maintenance troop with the 424th MTD, who is deployed from Sembach Air Base, Germany. “We don’t typically work on these types of trucks back home because they’re Army vehicles, so we got some hands-on training when we first get here. We run them pretty hard, but we do the best we can.”
Both detachments drive their convoys at night to offset the brutal desert heat and to minimize the number of unfriendlies on the road. At any point during their trip they may encounter something as inconvenient as civilians throwing rocks at their vehicles to the constant threat of small arms fire and the very real possibility that an improvised explosive device seemingly around every corner.
“An attack is always in the back of my mind,” said Tech. Sgt. Eric Lyke, a convoy commander with the 70th MTD, who is deployed from Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. “But my guys would rather be out there on the road doing the mission instead of here waiting for one.”
Besides the obvious challenges of keeping thirty plus vehicles together and safe on a 500 plus mile convoy, is quality sleep. At most FOBs Airmen have to stay in old, outdated tents that can’t be cooled. So after a long night on the road, they are forced to sleep in 100 plus degree heat before they hit asphalt once again.
“The tents at the FOBs are old and incredibly hot during the day,” said Chief Master Sgt. Matthew Malenic, detachment chief for 424th MTD, who is deployed from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. “After a long night on the road you just want to catch some sleep, but the heat is almost unbearable.”
Recently, the Army and Air Force started a joint project to improve the worst of these FOBs for the convoys. They’re currently sourcing and relocating new tents, air conditioning units and mattresses.
Mixed in with each convoy are two-to-three Army gun trucks. They typically lead the convoy through the pre-planned route, maneuvering it through intersections while providing an armed enforcer.
“It’s just the same as working with the Army for us, really business as usual” said Army Staff Sgt. Kenneth Green, a gun truck security commander with the Charlie 1/12. “The Air Force will push a little harder though. They’re more willing to drive longer and keep going to get the mission done.”
When the Air Force first started performing convoy missions for the Army there was an adjustment period for both services. But now after two years of proving themselves on daily basis, they are more than welcome by their sister service.
“They’re proud to do the mission and they should be because they do a great job,” said Army Lt. Col. Bill Thewes, Joint Logistics Task Force 57 commander, who has tactical control of the 586th ELRS. “Our overall objective is to make them feel like they’re part of our team and to make sure they have everything they need to do the job.”
“We’re really one team, one fight here,” said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Tabitha Hodge, JLTF 57 command sergeant major. “We don’t worry about what uniform they’re wearing, we’re very glad to have them.”
Most of these Airmen enjoy their job here even though danger potentially lurks around every twist and turn. They feel as though they are playing a key role in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“I don’t mind it,” said Senior Airman Rachael Cover, a vehicle operator with the 424th MTD, who is deployed from F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. “It makes me feel like an important part of the mission.”
“When we get back from a trip there’s a real sense of accomplishment,” Sergeant Ryan said. “We look at our brethren across the Air Force and we’re doing something here that they’ll never have the chance to do.”
“They’re very proud to do what they’re doing,” Chief Killion said. “But it’s a dangerous business for sure.”
A constant reminder of just how dangerous their job is can be found on the walls of their briefing facility. As the crews meet about 24 hours before departure, pictures of fallen Airmen and Soldiers that went out on a convoy mission but did not make it back are there with them. Although this rotation has not yet had to say goodbye to one of their teammates, they have witnessed to two Purple Heart ceremonies.
“Our goal is always to get everyone back here safely,” Chief Malenic said. “The days are long and the job is tough but we really look out for each other.”
No one is sure how long the Air Force will continue to help the Army with convoy missions, but regardless these two detachments will continue to perform their mission, and perform it well.
“If we don’t do our jobs, the mission suffers, and nobody does it better than us,” Colonel Hardrath said. “Our combat convoy Airmen make sacrifices to make the mission happen, they have great teamwork and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
When the war first started and Gene was on his first duty tour, this is what he did, ferrying supplies from Kuwait to the interior of Iraq as the front moved inland to Baghdad. Now they use airmen for the job.
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