COMBAT TRUCKERS - 1st SOLRS deployed convoys keep rollin’; maintain lifelines for troops on frontlines

  • Published
  • By Dylan Laurie
  • 1st Sow Public Affairs
Drive from Hurlburt Field to New York on a diet of sleep deprivation, extreme weather conditions and stressful traffic delays.

And be there by tomorrow.

If that's not challenging enough, add improvised explosive devices, vehicle born IEDs, small-arms fire, snipers, etc.

This was the scenario Staff Sgt. Matthew Trissel, 1st Special Operation Logistics Readiness Squadron vehicle operator and dispatcher, used to describe the normal operations tempo these 'combat truckers' engage while deployed.

"Imagine having to drive down a road knowing the enemy knows your routes. They know you're coming and are constantly training and trying to devise new ways to kill you," Sergeant Trissel said. "Whether it's strapping a bomb to one of the little kids that begs for food every time your convoy stops, or placing fake bombs so your convoy will stop so they can attack."

Air Force transportation units assumed this non-traditional mission in early 2004 to ease the burden on the Army and Marine Corps.

The vehicle operations career field is responsible for transporting passengers and cargo while at home station, according to Master Sgt. Michael Lindemann, 1st SOLRS vehicle operations supervisor. While deployed in support of Army convoy duty, they're responsible for commanding and driving in convoys of 30 or more tractor-trailers throughout Iraq. Each convoy lasts anywhere from seven to 15 days and, during that time, you travel at night and try to sleep during the day.

"We are responsible for getting the beans, bullets and band-aids to the front lines," Sergeant Lindemann said. "While deployed, we don't stay at some base in Iraq for three or four months at a time, we spend eight months driving on the world's most dangerous roads. Our convoys were attacked in one way or another just about every time they were on the road."

The biggest threat is IEDs, according to Sergeant Lindemann. Insurgents use IEDs to disable trucks within a convoy.

Once a vehicle is disabled, the convoy halts to recover that vehicle and provide first-aid to the wounded. At which time, they come under small arms fire and have rocket propelled grenades shot at them.

"People at home only see us driving buses, taxis, tractor-trailers and cleaning cars," Sergeant Lindemann said. "I just want everyone to know that our Airmen are actually seeing combat these days."

Almost 80 percent of the shop has been deployed, according to Senior Master Sgt. Billy Gibson, 1st SOLRS vehicle operations manager. Hurlburt's Airmen did more than 3,300 temporary duty assignment days last year.

"I've spent almost half of my enlistment overseas doing convoys," said Senior Airman Matthew Schario, 1st SOLRS vehicle operator/dispatcher, who's been in the Air Force four years.

Before these vehicle operators deploy, they attend approximately six weeks of intense basic combat convoy course training at Camp Bullis, Lackland Air Force Base, and Ft. Sill Army Post, Okla., which teaches Airmen to drive tractor-trailer supply trucks and gun trucks. The instruction provides combat lifesaver training during the 300-hour course, as well as close quarters marksmanship and critical weapons training on the M-2, M-249 and M-4 machine guns.

"A lot of career fields get credit for going outside the wire, but we are normally overlooked," said Staff Sgt. Christopher Yarbrough, 1st SOLRS vehicle operator. "We are on the front lines in constant danger everyday without the amenities most Airmen enjoy while deployed."

Part of the mission over there is similar to their job here, according to Tech. Sgt. Charles Mann, 1st SOLRS Battle Staff NCOIC.

"They are all trained vehicle operators who know how to do typical core tasks - load trucks, tie the load down and haul cargo," Sergeant Mann said. "The difference is doing the job in a combat environment."

During a recent eight month deployment, they accumulated 7.2 million miles in Iraq, transporting more than 21 thousand tons of mission cargo, according to Sergeant Lindemann. Fifty-two detachment personnel earned the Army Combat Action Badge for bravery after encountering 28 IED attacks, 14 small-arms fire engagements and seven complex attacks.

"I didn't know what to expect," said Senior Airman Joshua Bellin, 1st SOLRS vehicle operator/dispatcher. "My very first convoy, nothing happened. A couple of trips later, we're going through Baghdad...the next thing I know I hear small arms fire. It's kind of a market-area; a lot of people are out. IEDs and RPGs start going off, and the only thing I can really do is put my foot down."

At home, as well as deployed, nothing gets there without the troops of the LRS, according to Sergeant Yarbrough.

"We are your average airmen, not special ops or infantry, but we stepped in and stuck together and got the mission done better than anyone could have ever expected," he said. "We are combat Airmen!"

Staff Sgt. Christopher Yarbrough, 1st SOLRS vehicle operator, has been enlisted for eight-and-a-half years, and joined for education and opportunity.

His duties include operating government vehicles, maintaining vehicles assigned, vehicle dispatch and training.

"At home station as well as deployed nothing gets there without us taking it."

We were transporting equipment and supplies from Kuwait Naval Base to Balad Air Base, Iraq. I was in the lead vehicle of a 33 vehicle convoy. I was traveling 500 meters in front to ensure the roadway was clear of IED's etc. We were about 2km from our turn off on Milton passing through checkpoint 59.5 alpha. The convoy was at close interval due to the barriers at 59 and 59.5. After clearing 59.5 Gun Truck 1 (which was behind me) I saw a few tracer rounds. We scanned the area and before we could respond there were two detonations in the south bound lane. Immediately after, we received small arms fire from the left and right. There were rocket propelled grenades fired at several of our vehicles striking two of our third country national trucks without detonating. We pushed out of the kill zone to assess damage. We had to hastily repair once green system and recover two TCN vehicles from within the kill zone while waiting for a quick response force. By the time QRF arrived the fire fight was over and we were giving an injured TCN combat lifesaver aid. We pushed into logistics support area Anaconda and continued with the mission. The entire convoy had pushed through tracer fire that reminded me of Star Wars, just a constant hail of gun fire coming from both sides with the occasional blast from a RPG. We had several angels over us that night because it should have been a massacre. Besides damaged trucks and a TCN shot in the foot we pushed through safely. Explosive formed projectiles, IED's, vehicle born IED's and complex attacks were a usual occurrence. You just had to rely on each other and your training to get through the mission.

I led from the front as an assistant convoy commander lauded by our battalion commander as an excellent combat leader. The Army needed help transporting and 2T1's (the AFSC for vehicle operators) have stepped up and become one of the best escort and convoy elements period! We are your average airmen, not special ops or infantry, but we stepped in and stuck together and got the mission done better than anyone could have ever expected. We are Combat Airmen!

Senior Airman Brandon Simpson, 1st SOLRS vehicle operator and dispatcher, has been in the Air Force for a little over three years and joined the Air Force to finish school.

"The morning started off at LSA Anaconda, or Balad Air Base. It started as usual with an intel brief in this intel brief they told to be aware of car bombs detonating themselves beside the last gun truck and taking civilians hostage with a separate vehicle. We set out on MSR Tampa headed toward ASR Golden, and on to ASR Phoenix to get to Al Asad Marine Base. While on MSR Tampa we were approached by two vehicles driving at a high rate of speed flashing lights and honking on the horn. I was the assistant gunner with an M-4 carbine. The two cars approached fast. We flashed our Sure Fire flashlights at them, and they continued to come closer. So we escalated force by throwing a water bottle. However when the water bottle hit the ground they tried to get beside our vehicle, I went to shoot at the engine block and flipped my rifle on to semi but we hit a bump and it went onto burst. I unloaded three rounds into the hood of the vehicle. Both vehicles slammed on their brakes, and we continued on. We turned onto Golden and a huge ambush on convoy five minutes in front of us was performed. They were ambushed by six car bombs and about 100 insurgents firing RPG's and AK-47's over a mound of sand, our convoy was ordered to stop, but they pulled my gun truck and another gun truck to go provide fire support, by the time we got there all the insurgents were killed by the QRF and air support from F-16's. It was a very long day, and when we got to Al Asad, I found out that the two vehicles that were trying to get by our gun truck, detonated themselves on the next convoy and killed two U.S. Soldiers. I felt relieved yet I could not feel completely relieved due to the soldiers dying."

Staff Sgt. Matthew Trissel, 1st SOLRS vehicle operator and dispatcher, will hit his six-year mark on Feb. 27. "In short I joined to grow up, see things I'd never seen, pursue education and travel."

He performs and manages vehicle operations functions and activities. Included are dispatching, operating, and servicing motor vehicles such as general and special purpose, base maintenance, and material handling vehicles. Performs fleet management duties, accounts for vehicle fleet, issues driver's licenses, and conducts analyses. Plans, organizes, and directs vehicle transportation to support operational missions.

"While assigned to the 1058th Gun Truck Company stationed in Tikrit, Iraq (Forward Operating Base Speicher), I was a "gunner" on such weapons as the M-2, M-249, M-19 and the M-240 B escorting convoys. I was traveling in a convoy headed south from the Turkish border heading into Mosul, Iraq escorting contracted civilians with loads of living units headed to Fallujah, Iraq. There was a curfew in place in the city of Mosul, no civilian was aloud outside from 8 p.m. to 8 the next morning. If there was someone out and about you knew they were up to no good. Just two miles out of LSA Diamondback before crossing the Tigris River at around 11 p.m., our convoy came upon two dump trucks traveling alongside the convoy. There had been reports of dump truck vehicle born improvised explosive devices (car bombs) in the area so our lead gun truck forced the vehicles to the side of the road to stop to allow our convoy to pass as safely as possible. One of the trucks had been giving our lead gun truck a little trouble before submitting to pulling over. So, I was very cautious as my gun truck, which was the second gun truck and had the convoy commander as truck commander, came upon the vehicle. As we began to pass I never saw the second dump truck but I turned my turret towards the dump truck and motioned with my high power light for the driver to pull his vehicle off to the side of the road. As I did the driver smiled at me with an evil scowl, he immediately turned his wheel and rammed our Humvee with his truck tearing off a couple of our antennas' and knocking me into my turret. As I fell I heard the sound of a three round burst and immediately questioned as to who had fired that shot. My truck commander Tech. Sgt. Fitzsimmons said he'd fired the shots into the engine block (during this time in Iraq our rules of engagement was to use escalation of force; first by warning off, and then by firing rounds into the engine block of the vehicle to disable it, if the threat proceeded and the convoy was in danger, then you would fire into the vehicle). As I sprung to my gun position and turned my turret towards the back of my gun truck I viewed the dump truck behind our vehicle at a stop with smoke coming from the engine. At this point our gun truck had the dump truck held off on the side of the road as the convoy moved passed on our left hand side and made the right turn to go over the bridge on the Tigris. I shined my light on the vehicle to get a visual of what the driver was doing. The driver then jumped down from his vehicle and ran to the front to look at the engine, I was yelling for the man to get back in the vehicle and to stop what he was doing, he did not respond to me as he ran to his cab and jumped back in his dump truck. The man turned the dump truck engine on and headed straight at my vehicle despite my repeated attempts to ward him off and despite the blinding light I was shining into the cab. I charged my weapon, an M-249, and warned the vehicle one last time to stop, he didn't. At 30 meters from the rear of our vehicle I fired a seven to ten round burst into the engine block leading into the cab, the vehicle proceeded and I fired another seven to ten round burst directly into the cab of the vehicle. The truck slowed and came to a stop and slightly jumped the curb. This all occurred while my convoy passed on my vehicles left side no more than five meters from where the dump truck was. The door opened from the cab of the dump truck and the driver fell out on to the ground. At this time our convoy had passed and was almost at the LSA. My truck commander notified the LSA via SINCGAR and a quick response force was dispatched to the site. We could not remain at the scene as a lone gun truck vulnerable so we sped to catch up to the convoy which was now a quarter mile ahead."
"Our job deployed has very little visibility. When reports are done on airman on the roads of Iraq, our Air Force Specialty Code is often is mixed in with others and diluted into what actually goes on. There is no set schedule to work, missions can some times take up to three months to complete, traveling day and night non-stop from FOB to FOB being attacked constantly and trying to stay alert given the set back of an unhealthy diet, corrupted eating schedule, sleep deprivation, stress from the road and then everything that a normal deployment would add on to that. Also, take into account how you feel when you get off work everyday at home station. Have you ever almost fallen asleep on the road? Take all of the above factors in to account and then drive from here at Hurlburt Field to New York, and be there by tomorrow. Also, take into account that it can sometimes take 10 hours to travel what would usually take two hours, because of IED's, traffic, VBIED's, small arms fire, snipers, etc...Your next breath could be your last.

We are generally an unmentioned career field in combat environments. We have been doing convoys since Vietnam but when you think ground force you think Army or Marines. 2T1's are on the frontlines everyday.

I hear reports and view reports about other AFSC's having to deal with mortar attacks and how dangerous it is. Well, imagine having to drive down a road knowing that the enemy knows your routes, knows you're coming and is constantly training and trying to devise new ways to kill you.
Whether it's strapping a bomb to one of the little kids that begs for food every time your convoy stops or places fake bombs so your convoy will stop so they can attack with mortars, RPG's and small arms fire. Every decision you make could save or cost the lives of your fellow airman in those gun trucks, or cost the lives of the Iraqi's, contracted workers, Iraqi civilians, army and marines you escort up and down Iraq. Or indirectly because of the ammo, food, water, equipment and supplies you help transport on a daily basis across "the gauntlet."