By Capt. Murray Shugars, 2nd Battalion, 198th Combined ArmsOctober 8, 2009
CONTINGENCY OPERATING LOCATION Q-WEST, Iraq - Mississippi Army National Guard maintenance Soldiers strive to achieve among the highest operational readiness ratings at Contingency Operating Location Q-West.
Motor shop Soldiers with 2nd Battalion, 198th Combined Arms, headquartered in Senatobia, Miss., are maintaining 98 percent of their vehicles as fully mission capable.
Numerous factors account for this level of achievement-experienced mechanics, actively involved vehicles crews, long hours of diligence, dedication to the mission, and building and maintaining cooperative relations in and outside the battalion.
"We help each other out like a family," said Sgt. 1st Class Gary L. Tillman, battalion motor sergeant from Grenada, Miss. "We share ideas, materials, parts. If a shop needs something quick to repair a vehicle, they'll call motor shops from other companies in the battalion. Then they'll contact units outside the battalion that they've developed good relations with."
This collaborative approach compliments the Army's vehicle maintenance system, which has four levels - unit, direct support, general support and depot. In this system, the lowest echelon performs the simplest tasks. This begins at the user level, with vehicle crews conducting preventative maintenance, checks and services. Unit maintenance also involves company- and battalion-level upkeep and repair. When a unit lacks the resources to perform a task, it will evacuate the repair item to a higher echelon.
However, Q-West has no base-wide maintenance shop for the mine resistant, ambush protected vehicle, so there is no place here to take MRAPs for higher-echelon maintenance. This requires that units perform most of the maintenance, up to 85 to 90 percent of it, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Chuck Patterson, battalion maintenance officer.
"If we sent vehicles off the base for repairs, we wouldn't see them for a long time," said Patterson, a native of Hattiesburg, Miss. "The companies get the job done by helping each other out, and the civilian field service representatives also help a lot."
Additionally, the battalion is responsible for a higher number of combat vehicles than normal. When the 2/198th CAB arrived in July, it assumed the missions of three battalions. The battalion staffs the Q-West Mayor Cell, mans the Base Defense Operations Center, including a force protection company, and fields three convoy security companies. Along with these three major missions, the Mississippians inherited the vehicles and equipment of three battalions.
This added responsibility is most apparent with Company A, 2/198th CAB, out of Hernando, Miss. Company A is the force the protection element for COB Q-West, and its motor shop has a greater responsibility than servicing just the company's organic equipment.
The company is also responsible for the construction and material handling vehicles of the department of public works, said Sgt. 1st Class Randolph Dover, motor sergeant for Company A.
"One key to our success is that vehicle crews work with our mechanics," said Dover, a native of Sardis, Miss. "During the last deployment, I'd see the crews park their vehicles at the motor shop and leave. Now, the crews help more in maintenance. They learn their vehicles better, learn the sounds, the feel of their trucks, so now they can tell us what is wrong with a vehicle. This says a lot for the crews that want to stay and work on their trucks during their off-time."
"During my down time, I usually come to the motor shop and help with my vehicle," said Sgt. John D. Pumphrey, a truck commander with 1st Platoon and native of Columbus, Miss. "I learn something new every day I spend here."
Pumphrey was assisting Sgt. David A. McDonald, a mechanic from Coldwater, Miss., replace the rear brakes on Pumphrey's Humvee. They were also replaced the seals on the truck's rear hub. Initially serving in the light infantry, Pumphrey had little experience with combat vehicles but gained valuable knowledge since the deployment.
"I'm far from mechanically inclined, but I've learned a lot more since my light infantry days," said Pumphrey. "I understand the limitations of the vehicle, what it can and can't do. The other day, I helped replace the time delay and learned how it helps us accelerate when necessary.
"I avoid potholes because of how hard that is on the vehicle," said Pumphrey. "I've learned how important it is to keep my truck well-lubricated, keep the fluids full. I also keep the truck cleaner now because it's easier to work on if it's clean. For instance, if the underside is caked with dirt, you're getting dirt in your eyes and have a harder time getting at the bolts, getting at anything under there. I can tell my truck is riding a lot better."
Crews actively contribute to maintenance in every company. For instance, Sgt. 1st Class Perrin E. Dickerson, motor sergeant for Company B, headquartered in Greenwood, explained that crew involvement was central to Company B's success.
"The vehicle crews are very involved, and that makes a big difference. Everyone works together for the mission," said Dickerson, a Senatobia, Miss., native.
This level of teamwork between crews and mechanics occurs across the battalion. Every company motor sergeant claimed that it contributed to their success, and it seems to result from the "family" orientation of the battalion. The Mississippians take this for granted, but outsiders notice it.
"The biggest difference that I see from my unit is that the Mississippians are more family oriented, whereas my unit was more by-the-book military oriented," said Staff Sgt. James B. Thomason, a native of Everett, Wash., who extended six months with A Co., 2-198th CAB after his Washington National Guard unit returned home. "These guys are like a big family, and the guys in my unit were not."
This family orientation includes supporting families back home. Before deployment, Soldiers with dependents complete family care plans, formal agreements that designate responsible caregivers for children.
"I had a hard time during the first month, being away from my three kids," said Spc. Talaya R. Mitchell, a maintenance administrator with Company B. "That's why I put up all these family pictures, so I feel like they're here."
Mitchell's morale has improved since she discovered that a representative from the Mississippi National Guard checks regularly on her children.
"Somebody from the Mississippi Guard calls my kids' guardian once a week and asks how they're doing in school and if they need anything," said Mitchell, a native of Grenada, Miss. "When I found that the Guard was looking after my family, helping to get them resources, I was very grateful. Everybody deploys with an insecure spirit, but I'm at greater peace. I wake up and look forward to coming to work-as long as I know things are good at home."
The battalion motor shops may operate as an extended family, but the important thing is that this family seems to get along. The camaraderie in the motor shops improves morale and performance.
"We are busy, but everyone helps each other so you never feel like you can't do something," said Spc. Yukia C. Kennedy, a native of Greenville, Miss., and mechanic with Company C out of Oxford, Miss.
"Plus, we joke around with each other. We have fun, but we get the job done. I sell shoes back home, so this job is a lot different than that. I get a lot dirtier here, but I'd rather be here than home selling shoes. This is important," said Kennedy.
Kennedy's commitment to the mission and feeling of accomplishment are common with maintenance Soldiers across the battalion.
"I've learned a lot more being over here, and this has made me more proficient at my job," said Spc. Cornelius C. Love, a Company C mechanic from Tutwiler, Miss. "We keep the vehicles going and help train the crews on how to fix vehicle issues themselves. They convoys wouldn't roll without us."
"I love maintenance. Every day is different. There's always some new problem to tackle," said Sgt. Joseph L. Ciaramitaro, a Company A, 2-198th CAB mechanic from Crockett, Miss. "Maintenance is an essential job because without it the whole mission fails. We're doing our part to keep vehicles up to standards and making sure they come back from every mission safe."
The commitment and high morale result from the influence of experienced noncommissioned officers, said Sgt. 1st Class Wilton R. Cooper, Company C motor sergeant.
"For the younger Soldiers, this is their first deployment, and they didn't have a lot of maintenance experience," said Cooper, a native of Mantachie, Miss. "My NCOs set a can-do attitude. As long as the NCOs have a positive attitude, the Soldiers have more confidence. I'm proud of the younger Soldiers for overcoming intimidation with the new equipment, and the NCOs had a lot to do with that."
The 2/198 CAB benefits from having seasoned maintenance NCOs. Many of them are employed as Federal or State technicians, and they have worked together for years. These factors decrease the time required to master new equipment, said Tillman, the battalion motor sergeant.
An example of such an experienced motor shop is A Company, 106th Brigade Support Battalion, out of McGee, Miss., a unit attached to 2/198th CAB for the deployment.
"This has been a good but challenging deployment so far," said Sgt. 1st Class Bradley W. Johnson, A Co., 106th BSB motor sergeant from Brookhaven, Miss. "The working environment is better than we had during the last deployment, but we are shorthanded. We took over for a company that had more mechanics but had an 80 percent operational readiness rating. Our company has half as many mechanics but maintains a 100 percent rating. The success is due to long hours and very experienced mechanics."
Even some of the lower ranking Soldiers have a surprising level of experience.
"I re-enlisted to deploy with [A Co., 106th BSB]," said 42-year-old Pfc. Joseph V. Morgan, a mechanic from Seminary, Miss. "I was out 17 years and joined back up eight days before mobilization, but I make my living as a mechanic. If it has a motor, I can fix it."
Those who work with the Mississippians appreciate the high level of experience.
"Being from Ft. Bragg, I'm used to dealing with active duty Soldiers," said Mark A. Evans, an MRAP field service representative from Fayetteville, N.C. "Active duty Soldiers do a great job, but most of them don't have near the work experience of the National Guard Soldiers. You just can't make up for that with training. I like working with National Guard Soldiers because they tend to be older and are more used to the job."
Their performance resulted from the collaborative efforts of maintenance, logistics, leadership, and vehicle crews, said Maj. Walt Vinzant, 2/198th CAB executive officer and Senatobia, Miss., native.
"It's like watching a sports team that gets better and better as the season progresses. You can see the pride in their faces and their work. Leadership is always at the root of success and is apparent at every level. They're doing a great job. Knowing them, I would expect nothing less," said Vinzant.