Vigilance is their watchword
October 11, 2010
- Army drivers provide security to convoys.
- Convoy escort teams are trained and proficient far beyond the requirements of their job as Army vehicle operators.
1st Sustainment Brigade The gunner of the convoy escort team (CET) sits on a three by one- foot board covered with a thin layer of padding, manning a .50-caliber machine gun. Ever vigilant, he stands watch in the turret of a mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle, providing security to a convoy of military and civilian vehicles. Despite the wind and dust stinging his face, he remains alert for hours at a time. The driver and MRAP commander sit in the front seats, watching the roads and fields for possible threats. The driver is responsible for operating this 30-ton vehicle while watching for anything that could jeopardize the mission or their safety. He must navigate the sandy terrain and pot-holed Iraqi roads. The MRAP commander is ultimately responsible for the lives of the gunner and driver and the maintenance of the vehicle. He must stay alert and call out suspicious activities like possible roadside bombs and obstacles in the road. He frequently communicates with other Soldiers in the convoy as well as the convoy commander via Harris radios, ensuring everyone is safe and that the mission continues as planned. Dressed from head-to-toe in Army combat gear, all three Soldiers acting in tandem as one sensor, must be able to recognize the difference between a civilian and enemy and make split-second judgments. Their mission is to provide security to convoys traveling to and from Iraq and Kuwait in support of the U.S. drawdown from Iraq and Operation New Dawn. Thoughts of loved ones and fantasies about returning home flow through their minds but are dismissed in order to maintain focus on their current mission. The constant drone of the vehicles driving by causes their eyes to get heavy but they do not dare fall asleep, all too aware of the possible dangers that loom in the fields and cities of Iraq. The drivers of 1st Platoon, 64th Transportation Company, 1st Sustainment Brigade are each trained and proficient far beyond the requirements of their job as Army vehicle operators, more commonly referred to as an 88 Mike or driver. Stationed out of Fort Lee, Va., and in their 10th month of deployment, 1st Plt. has provided security to more than 60 convoys delivering supplies to bases throughout Iraq and assisting with the drawdown of more than 2 million pieces of U.S. equipment from Iraq. The CETs consist of hand-picked Soldiers who were identified for their professionalism, prior combat experience and responsible nature, said Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Crewse, 1st Plt. Sergeant and CET commander, 64th TC, 1SB. "I search and scan for a lot of things, small-arms, IED\'s, EFP's and stuff like that," said Sgt. Brandon J. Robertson, vehicle operator and gunner, 1st Plt. 64th TC, 1SB. "It's actually a stressful job up there because you're constantly looking for threats. It's all about staying vigilant and not getting complacent." Since U.S. combat troops withdrew from Iraq, 1st Plt. CET Soldiers depend on their own training and the Iraqi forces to ensure the roads are safe for convoys. "I know they (U.S. combat troops) had a big load on their plate to make sure things are secure and peaceful," said Robertson, a New York native. "And now it's up to the Iraqi army and Iraqi police. We're doing our job rolling things in and out, more so out, so we can make sure everybody can get home safe." Despite the withdrawal of combat troops, Crewse said he is confident in his platoon's ability to provide reliable security. He said 1st Plt. Soldiers train prior to and during deployment. The training includes handling and firing the .50-caliber machine gun and a 40-hour block of instruction focusing on the different aspects of the Caiman MRAP. Soldiers are taught basic characteristics of the vehicle as well as how the vehicle will react to off-road terrain, urban terrain and sudden stops. The course also teaches a lot about maintenance of the vehicle, he said. The CET also goes through a serious of simulation and virtual training exercises. "We are given situations that we would face in actual combat, be it small-arms attack, indirect fire or complex attacks," said Crewse. "The train-up is to give us the opportunity to get a feel of what we're going to go through before we hit ground on theater (Iraq)," said Robertson. In addition to the CETs training, there are several experienced veterans in 1st Plt. who have previously deployed to combat zones. "We are proficient and well trained at what we do," said Crewse. "I have Sgt. Joseph Sipes for example, who has deployed to Afghanistan and has extensive combat experience, as well as Sgt. Emmanuel Bonilla. We would be able to repel any attacks if need be." Spc. Gary Ruffcorn, a 12-year combat veteran, has deployed to Iraq four times, to include Operation Iraqi Freedom I. Serving as an 88 Mike in all deployments, his extensive knowledge of the Iraqi roads is another advantage for the CET. In addition to providing security, the CETs are responsible for minor maintenance and repair on their MRAP. Immediately after the exhausting drive, Soldiers identify and make any necessary repairs on their vehicle. Rest and sleep often have to wait until Soldiers have guaranteed their vehicle is properly working and mission-ready. "There are times when we have to be very diligent in making sure that the maintenance is done properly or we'll be stuck on the road, high and dry," said Crewse. Robertson, a 13-year veteran, said the MRAP is the CET's life line. Proper knowledge and maintenance of the vehicle could mean the difference between life and death for the CET and other personnel in the convoy. Furthermore, reliable communication is essential for mission success and CET Soldiers must be knowledgeable on their Harris radio systems. Soldiers are responsible for troubleshooting errors in radio performance and ensuring communication stays open and clear. The communications, the functioning of the vehicle and making sure it can get out of harm's way as quick as possible is very important, Robertson said. Along with the responsibilities of the CET come challenges. One challenge the Soldiers face is the agonizing wait and complacency that comes with convoy missions. The CETs wait for roadside bomb clearance, sand storms to clear, threat levels to decrease, vehicles to be repaired, and most importantly, wait for an attack. Patience is necessary in order to tolerate the inconsistent schedule. "What helps me stay focused is just doing the job," said Robertson. "I have to keep in mind that it's not only me in the truck. Not only that but you have the entire convoy and you have to take care of each other. Being a gunner is a big responsibility because we are the trigger-pullers." Ranging from four to 15 days, CET missions can become mundane and exhausting. Soldiers can be expected to be on duty for up to 24 hours straight depending on mission requirements and the severity of any problems that arise. Crewse said the long distances, the unknown aspects of the day-to-day and fighting complacency are challenges his Soldiers face while on missions. The Canyon Lakes, Calif. native and 20-year veteran constantly reminds his Soldiers of the importance of staying vigilant. "Fortunately we have not received any direct IED attacks onto our vehicle systems; however, with Operation New Dawn, it does not mean that the dangers do not still lurk," said Crewse. "It's still extremely important that these men and women under my charge maintain their vigilance, professionalism and their dedication like they've done since day one." Motivation runs high for the 1st Plt. CETs despite working long hours in a desolate, foreign country. The Soldiers are closing-in on the end of their deployment and looking forward to returning to Virginia. Crewse said he will not see his Family immediately after returning to Virginia because they live in California; however, he is happy to see his Soldiers reunite with their loved ones. The father of five said seeing his Soldiers' loved ones embrace them after a long time away is what he looks forward to when they get home. "I have five members of my platoon who had children while we've been gone," said Crewse. "What motivates me is that these men and women were put under my charge, under my leadership and I owe it to them and their families to ensure they are trained and proficient and get home safely. I have an awesome responsibility that I take very serious." "The thing I look forward to most is just being with my Family once again," said Robertson. "I'm a big Family man. This is my third deployment, they're used to it, but it doesn't get any easier for either of us, myself as the Soldier or them as the military Family." The drawdown of Iraq and Operation New Dawn are significant markers in American history. First Platoon Soldiers participated in the largest drawdown of U.S. forces since World War II as well as the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. Crewse said he feels humble, proud and honored to be a part of American history. "After 20 plus years of faithful Army service, this is probably the greatest group of men and women that I have had the pleasure to work with," said Crewse. "There has never been a prouder moment in my life than to see these men and women continuously bust that gate (crossing into Iraq), with their heads held high and maintaining discipline and professionalism." Robertson, who has served two deployments in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, said it makes him feel honored to take part in several historical moments in Iraq. It is personal for him because he was deployed to Iraq when the U.S. was building up their forces to fight terrorism and now gets to take part in the drawdown. "Compared to my last deployment, it's a big deal," said Robertson. "When this (OIF) first kicked off, all this stuff had to come in, and now it all has to be drawn back out. And as they change up the operations, it's really cool. I don't mind being a part of history. It's great!" The drivers and CETs greatly assisted with the war in Iraq, ensuring Soldiers had necessary supplies to fight effectively. They also play a vital role in the drawdown and Operation New Dawn, continuing to provide supplies for Soldiers in Iraq and security for convoys. "I love my job," said Crewse. "I think it's extremely important. I believe without us, the likelihood is great that our nation's efforts to secure this country of Iraq would falter. I firmly believe that without our professionalism and dedication to excellence, that a lot of bad things could happen. I'm extremely proud of these men and women." "As they say in the Army, nothing moves without transportation," said Robertson. "You need us." -30-