Mississippi armor company drives gun trucks, secures convoys
November 9, 2009
CONTINGENCY OPERATING LOCATION Q-WEST, Iraq - Mississippi Guardsmen overcame setbacks during a round-trip convoy security mission between Contingency Operating Location Q-West and Forward Operating Base Warrior Oct. 28 and 29.
Members of 1st Platoon, C Company, 2nd Battalion, 198th Combined Arms, an armor unit from Oxford, Miss., experienced a weapons malfunction, a possible improvised explosive device, a military vehicle break-down and a civilian tractor-trailer accident - all during intermittent thunderstorms.
Issues like this are common, especially when the platoon runs a mission to Warrior, said Staff Sgt. Michael D. Hammons, convoy commander and native of Bolivar, Tenn.
Hammons directed the convoy through one challenge after another during the mission. However, after arriving at FOB Warrior, he had a sleepless night.
"When we finally got in our tents and everyone was mostly asleep, we had a hell of a storm," said Hammons. "The rain and wind shook the tent all night. I kept thinking, 'Here I am eight to 10 days from taking leave to see my child born, and I might die in a tent at the FOB Warrior Convoy Support Center.' I couldn't sleep."
The Mississippians generally agree that their trips to Warrior are jinxed.
"Things always seem to go wrong when we come here," said Spc. Kyle B. Shoffner, a driver from Memphis, Tenn. "Last time we came here, one vehicle had a flat tire and another broke down."
Hammons recounted the numerous setbacks during the mission. First was a machine gun that malfunctioned before leaving, requiring maintenance. On the return trip, a gun truck broke down and had to be towed. Then, with lights of Q-West on the horizon, when Soldiers began talking of hot showers and warm beds, a civilian truck driver fell asleep at the wheel, barreling his semi-tractor trailer 500 meters into the desert, injuring no one but causing another delay while the platoon secured the area and winched the truck from axle-deep mud.
However, the incident that tested the Soldiers' training most happened on the way to Warrior, when the platoon encountered what appeared to be an IED near a small, riverside village, said 2nd Lt. Thomas McLeskey, 1st Platoon leader and native of Oxford, Miss.
Just after the scouts crossed a bridge, all the village lights went out, said Staff Sgt. Daniel L. Ramseur, a scout truck commander whose job is to clear the route ahead of the convoy's main body. While blackouts are common with Iraq's unreliable power grid, Ramseur said it was an unsettling coincidence.
"The blackout could have been a sign of enemy activity," said Ramseur, an Independence, Miss., native. "Also, we didn't see any people, and that was our first time through there without seeing anyone. When we spotted a concrete mound beside the road, we halted the convoy to investigate."
All the signs pointed to it being an IED, said Ramseur. There were nearby dwellings, a traffic signpost across the road that could have been a marker, foot paths leading off into the desert and what looked like a wire covered with dirt. Viewing it with thermal sights, the scouts verified that the cement mound radiated heat, another sign of an explosive device.
After marking the site with chemical lights, the platoon secured the area and radioed battalion headquarters at Q-West to request an explosives ordinance disposal team, said McLeskey.
The EOD team, which was busy with another mission, eventually arrived to investigate the site, concluding that the concrete mound was the base of a traffic sign recently removed, said McLeskey.
"Even though this turned out to be a false alarm, the scouts and convoy commander made the right decisions," said McLeskey. "They dealt with a possible IED exactly as they were trained, and they showed good tactical patience."
The platoon has honed its battle drills during many missions that have taken them through much of northern Iraq, said McCleskey.
They have convoyed to Habur Gate on the Turkish border, a favorite destination, and to other bases, such as Taji, Sykes, Spieker, Victory, Nespa, Sinjar and Marez, said Sgt. Kyle R. Stegall, a vehicle commander from Sugarland, Texas.
"A big challenge is making sure that the civilian drivers, especially the (third-country-nationals) who don't speak English, understand what they're supposed to do," said Stegall.
Another challenge for the platoon is that vehicle crews constantly change because of Soldiers rotating home on leave, said Staff Sgt. Tim Mooney, assistant convoy commander. To accommodate this, the platoon has adjusted its staffing and training procedures.
"We cross-train gunners and drivers so we have more flexibility in filling crews," said Mooney, a native of Huntsville, Ala. "We never have a problem filling crews because we get so many volunteers. In fact, we have to turn people away. Going on missions breaks the monotony of being at Q-West."
Among those eager for missions is Sgt. Ryan Lee, a scout vehicle commander from Independence, Miss.
"I love this. I'm one of those people who says I'm the best at what I do, and what I do is command a scout vehicle," said Lee. "My first sergeant wanted to make me a convoy commander. I said, 'All due respect, First Sergeant, but I think I can do more to protect the vehicles behind me by being up here in the front scouting."
Lee's gunner, Spc. Robert A. Reeves, said that he, too, enjoyed the missions. The Cabot, Ark., native said he had a ten-year break in service and joined just for the deployment. Formerly serving with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Reeves said he joined C Company, 2/198th CAB, because it was the closest tank unit to his home.
"I wanted to do my part, and one day I might actually get back on a tank. Even so, I've had a lot of fun and enjoyed myself thoroughly since we deployed," said Reeves. "This has been a great adventure, and I've lost 35 pounds. I don't have a hope of going far in rank. I'm just here to enjoy the trip."
Another 1st Platoon Soldier who looks forward to missions is Spc. Michael A. Pettit, a gunner from Horn Lake, Miss.
"Going on missions is better than being stuck on the base," said Pettit. "You can get out and see the country, see what life's like on other bases."
The many volunteers offer a pool from which to pick crews, but the leave policy also affects the availability of noncommissioned officers qualified to be convoy and assistant convoy commanders. Therefore, the NCOs rotate in these positions as well, said McLeskey.
"We have a tracker of whose turn it is to be CC or ACC," said McLeskey. "I brief them on the mission, tell them to pick their crews, but I don't micro-manage them. They've mastered the process."
Mastering that process began during pre-deployment training, said McLeskey.
"When we were at Camp Shelby, we trained a lot at night," he said. "We set up training lanes and had our own opposing forces attack. We practiced procedures for evacuating wounded and reporting unexploded ordinance. We also practiced self-recovery methods. For instance, say you have a vehicle breakdown. Hooking up a tow-bar in the dark is totally different from doing it during the day."
Most of the Soldiers prefer to run convoy security missions at night, for they encounter fewer vehicles and people, said Mooney.
The gun trucks operate at night with an array of lights, creating unique challenges, especially for the gunner who maintains all-around surveillance, said Reeves.
"Running missions at night, you work in a bubble of light that you can't see beyond," said Reeves. "You have to deal with what enters the bubble. You learn to assess and react quickly."
The longstanding catch-phrase, stay alert, stay alive, is more than a clichAfA to these Soldiers.
"You've got to be alert and look for anything unusual," said Sgt. Bradley D. Thomas, a truck commander and sometime turret gunner from Noxapater, Miss. "It's tiring, but I love gunning because you get to see a lot more."
Sgt. Anthony Porter, a gunner from Greenwood, Miss., echoed this sentiment.
"When I'm up there in the gun turret, I'm always thinking about my situation," said Porter. "I'm always alert because I'm the eyes of the vehicle."
Spc. Brian E. Price said that as a driver he must remain focused, especially when his Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected truck is equipped with the Self-Protection Adaptive Roller Kit. The SPARKs is a set of roller banks attached to the truck's front, absorbing the damage of IEDs and shielding the vehicle and crew.
"When I get behind the wheel, I have a lot to think about, the crew, the mission," said Price. "I got a lot on my mind, so I always try to get enough rest between missions. I can't mess around when I'm driving, especially when I'm rolling with SPARKs."
The platoon operates three variants of the Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected truck-the rugged MaxxPro, the smooth-riding Caiman and the bus-like RG-33, said McLeskey.
"Most of us prefer the Caiman," said McLeskey. "It has such a smooth ride, we call it the Cadillac. The roughest ride is the MaxxPro, which is my vehicle. It's rugged, but when it hits rough terrain it'll jar your teeth."
Another standard vehicle during missions is the repair truck, a 5-ton Medium Tactical Vehicle with a Low Signature Armored Cab. The Soldiers call it the "tire truck," because the MTV-LSAC carries extra tires, spare parts, oil, tools and other maintenance items that assist the convoy with self-recovery, said Sgt. Roy G. Chapman, commander of a tire truck.
"Some people don't want to be in the tire truck because it's not protected as well as the MRAP," said Chapman, a native of Batesville, Miss. "I don't think about comfort or protection when I get my truck. I think of all the vehicles as the same vehicle, going in the same direction. Somebody has to do it, and anyway all the vehicles protect each other."
Chapman's attitude calls to mind a definition of discipline that Lee and Ramseur learned from the same high school history teacher.
"I'll never forget my history teacher at Independence High School, Mr. Ronnie Cusher, making us memorize the definition of discipline," said Lee. "He wrote it on the board, but not all at once. He wrote a little each week, and throughout the semester we memorized it a little at a time."
Lee recited the definition, but to fact-check his recitation he radioed Ramseur in the second scout truck.
"You want to know what'" said Ramseur.
"The definition of discipline," said Lee.
"That's easy," said Ramseur. "Learn to do what you have to do, when you have to do it, whether you like it or not, whether you have time or not, without being told."