U.S. Army Alaska's Polar Express
March 7, 2012
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (March 7, 2012) -- Black ice, blowing snow, ice fog, treacherous hills and subzero temperatures are just some of the conditions the Soldiers of the 109th Transportation Company face each week to get cargo and supplies from here to Fort Wainwright.
Since October, the Soldiers have been connecting U.S. Army Alaska, known as USARAK, assets at the two installations and Fort Greeley with a weekly supply run they call Operation Polar Express.
The mission gives USARAK's 2d Engineer Brigade an opportunity to conduct logistical proficiency training for its subordinate units while providing cargo movement capabilities for USARAK units, according to USARAK Logistics Officer Maj. Donna Johnson.
The day begins early for the 109th as it prepares for another 360-mile convoy up Alaska's Parks Highway connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Sgt. Shasta Miller, a driver arrives ready to face the road ahead of her. Her vehicle, an M915 A3 freight tractor with an M872 semi-trailer attached, carries a shipping container of computers, needed at Fort Wainwright in support of a lateral transfer.
Later that morning, she'll be a part of a three-vehicle convoy.
She performs all the necessary preventive maintenance checks and procedures and ensures the load on her trailer is secure.
The convoy consists of Convoy Commander Staff Sgt. Matthew Lewis and Driver Spc. Kevin Wilson and Miller. In the recovery vehicle are Driver Sgt. Gilman "Shane" Bieto and Mechanic Spc. Billy Harlin. Weather conditions and safety are the primary concerns as Lewis briefs his team.
It's time to go. Miller loads up, checks her mirrors and shifts into drive. Closely watching the wheels of the trailer, she rolls out.
They aren't moving and the trailer is dragging. Miller stops and puts the truck back into park. In the truck next to her, Lewis quickly notices the problem and directs her to keep moving back and forth in attempts to loosen the tire brakes which periodically freeze in the frigid temperatures.
It works and off they go.
As the journey continues, Sgt. Miller keeps a close watch and ensures the truck and the trailer move along safely. She says she's a little nervous, since this is her first time driving up to Fort Wainwright. Her experience from her recent deployment to Afghanistan, however, is obvious as she maneuvers through the icy hills and bridges with ease.
They arrive at Talkeetna, their first stop, for a restroom break and to stretch their legs. Ten minutes is all they get before mounting up again.
But the trailer is stuck - again.
The wheels won't turn.
Sgt. Miller's attempts to roll them free aren't working.
"You got a hammer?" Beito asks her.
He later explains that "the part that freezes is where the brake shoe meets the brake drum. That's the part that always freezes. When it freezes it won't allow the wheels to turn."
Beito crawls under the trailer and gently taps on the brake drum to set it free. It works and they're off again. They arrive at Fort Wainwright safely and without any further delays, fuel up, change their load and are ready to head back the next morning.
Beito got his commercial driver's license when he was 16-yrs-old and has more than 10 years of experience driving for the Army.
"Oh, I love it," he said. "I've had a lot of jobs, but I've always come back to driving."
So far Operation Polar Express has seen 15 missions, which can range from three to 30 trucks, usually running to and from Fort Wainwright, Fort Greely, and sometimes to the port of Valdez.