By Capt. Murray Shugars, 2nd Battalion, 198th Combined ArmsDecember 22, 2009
CONTINGENCY OPERATING LOCATION Q-WEST, Iraq - Mississippi Army National Guard members conducted a routine convoy security mission from Contingency Operating Location Q-West to Forward Operating Base Sykes Nov. 31 to Dec. 1.
Members of 1st Platoon, A Company, 106th Brigade Support Battalion, out of Magee, Miss., and attached to 2nd Battalion, 198th Combined Arms, headquartered in Senatobia, Miss., escorted civilian tractor-trailers on a mission distinguished for its uneventfulness.
"This convoy escort mission had no hostile contact and no vehicle issues, no break downs, flat tires or accidents, the first mission I've seen with no issues," said 2nd Lt. John A. Barrere, convoy commander from D'Iberville, Miss. "The Soldiers did an outstanding job of maintaining security and positive control of the civilian cargo trucks. The convoy was tight and smooth, the best I've been on, and it shows how much these Soldiers have adapted and grown over the last months."
Sgt. Dmitri C. Payton, assistant convoy commander, said much the same.
"Overall, the mission to Sykes went well," said the Collins, Miss., native. "We kept the convoy together, which was my main goal. We had good communications. This has been one of the best convoys I've been on since I've been in Iraq."
Since arriving in Iraq, the 1st Platoon Soldiers of Convoy Escort Team 2 executed 34 missions for a total of 68 convoy pushes, logging more than 3,500 miles along the cratered highways of northern Iraq, said Barrere. Besides FOB Sykes, CET 2 has visited COL Speicher, COL Marez, Joint Base Balad and FOB Sommerall.
The Mississippians had a significant learning curve and mindset adjustment, said Barrere.
"Our Soldiers come from an array of support roles," said Barrere. "These are support Soldiers, not combat arms, and we turned them into convoy security Soldiers, which is more like an infantry- or military police-type job. They are cooks, mechanics, fuelers, supply specialists, and such. They're not used to this life, but they've done a great job."
One Soldier who said he has adapted well to the new mission is Spc. James B. Mangum, a gunner from Magee, Miss.
"We replaced an infantry unit," said Mangum. "I'm not infantry. I was trained as a '92 Fox,' a Petroleum Supply Specialist, a fueler, but I've never done that job. They told us all through (advanced individual training) that we might not end up doing our primary (military occupational specialty). I don't mind at all. I enjoy being a gunner a lot better than fueling."
Soldiers on their first deployment have an added anxiety, said Sgt. Victoria M. Moffett, a truck commander on her first deployment.
"The scariest thing about your first deployment is the unknown," said Moffett, a Collins, Miss., native. "At first, you don't know what to expect with a deployment. You get thrown into new situations and challenges. Then you start to realize what's normal and what's not. I had to learn a whole new job, and it took a bit to become comfortable doing it."
Moffett said that leaders must show courage under stress.
"I may be scared-we've received mortar fire a couple times on missions-but I can't show I'm scared out there," said Moffett. "I have to stay calm, send accurate and timely information about our situation to higher. When unexpected things happen, Soldiers look to their leaders, and if you're the leadership position you have to be a leader."
Another Soldier who had to overcome the challenges of a new mission in unfamiliar surroundings was Spc. Latonya Warren, a gun truck driver from Indianola, Miss.
"I was trained as a cook, not as a gun truck driver," said Warren. "Driving was a whole lot different than cooking in the dining facility. At first, I was nervous, but now I feel fine with driving. When a mission is complete and everyone makes it home safe, it gives you outstanding satisfaction."
Warren said that having a positive attitude helped her tackle new challenges.
"I learned to open myself to other things," said Warren. "My philosophy is whatever you have to do, do your best. A job is what you make it. In the Army, you do what you're told, and you should do it to the best of your ability. You might as well enjoy it because you have no choice."
Even a Soldier such as Spc. Jason E. Dean, a wrecker operator fulfilling the duties of his military occupational training, faced challenges.
"When we first got to Iraq, it was difficult," said Dean, a Brooklyn, Miss., native. "We had a lot of vehicles breaking down on missions, and I was green then. I didn't know my job well. In the past few months, I have improved a lot, and I am more confident than ever."
Dean said every convoy mission includes a recovery team, operating the Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck. When a vehicle goes down, Dean said the recovery team has about 15 minutes to assess a situation and decide whether to fix or tow a downed vehicle.
"When a vehicle goes down, the whole convoy is vulnerable, and me and my mechanic are exposed," Dean said. "We've got to get that vehicle recovered, and that's the worst place in the world to be when you got no time. You're out there on that ground trying to recover that vehicle, and you're going to be bowed up with all the things you have to do. A recovery crew has to use teamwork. If we decide to tow the vehicle, we have to divide the tasks. While my mechanic is hooking up a tow bar, I'm dropping a drive shaft, and, if there's another mechanic, he will be caging the brakes, which is how to unlock the brakes."
Dean said that operator maintenance was the key factor in decreasing the number of breakdowns since the unit arrived in-country. If truck crews are doing their preventative maintenance checks and services, he said they can avoid many issues on the road.
In spite of the learning curve, these support Soldiers have adapted well to the convoy security mission, said Barrere.
"I'm very impressed with how far these Soldiers have come since we mobilized," said Barrere. "They are doing outstanding. They hold their own with any combat arms unit doing this mission, and the proof is in the number of missions we are running. If we weren't performing, we would have fewer missions. Many of these Soldiers prefer being on a convoy escort team to their initial support training."
Sgt. Anthony Weghorst, lead scout truck commander, said he had the most exciting and exhausting experiences of his life during convoy missions.
"Most exciting experience I've had was when we received mortar fire," said Weghorst, a native of Puckett, Miss. "It was September 16, on a Wednesday - I'll never forget the date. Three rounds fell that night, and the nearest landed 75 meters or so from our vehicle. Then, later that evening, we encountered an (improvised explosive device). That trip took about 15 hours."
Weghorst said was less nervous about receiving indirect fire than he felt whenever he had to give a briefing in front of gathered Soldiers.
"I'm more nervous standing in the Convoy Readiness Center briefing everyone on battle drills than I am in my vehicle on a mission. I know what I'm doing on a mission."
Dean said he spent as much time as he could on the road as part of a recovery crew.
"I love being on missions, especially during the holidays for the distraction," said Dean. "For some, living on the road is not the thing, but I volunteer to go out. Time goes by quicker, and it gives you a sense of accomplishment. You feel like you're doing something worthwhile."
Spc. Keenan Barnes, a scout driver, said he prefers this mission to his primary job as a fueler. In lead scout crew, Barnes drives a gun truck mounted with roller equipment that counters improvised explosives devices. Attached to the front of his truck, the Self-Protection Adaptive Roller Kit attached is designed to absorb the damage of IEDs and shields the vehicle and crew. Barnes said he had a great sense of satisfaction mastering the SPARKs.
"I like driving the scout truck because it's not too many people can handle the SPARKs, especially this one, which is longer, has more segments," said Barnes, a native of New Hebron, Miss. "To be able to drive a piece of equipment that not everybody can drive, that's pretty cool-and with no accidents. That's motivating. No doubt."
Spc. Marcus D. Glass, a native of Magee, Miss., said that he preferred gunning on convoy missions to anything else he might be doing in the deployment.
"It's awesome being up in the gunner's hatch," said Glass. "I'd rather be nowhere else than up here. I get to see everything."
Sgt. Jamie L. Moffett, a gunner from Taylorsville, Miss., shares a similar attitude.
"I love being on the road," said Moffett. "The scenery is always interesting. Out there on missions, you can cast away your troubles on the road."
Sgt. Jason L. Gilmore, a native of Laurel, Miss., and scout truck commander, voiced another reason for preferring life on the road.
"I don't think you're in the real Iraq if you spend all your time on base," said Gilmore. "When you get out, you begin to see how the people live. You get the big picture, and it helps you understand what we're doing in this country."
Sgt. Ricky L. Drummonds, a gunner from Prentiss, Miss., agreed with Gilmore.
"I want to see Iraq, and this the best way," said Dummonds. "Plus, you find out a lot about yourself on these missions, your weaknesses and strengths. You turn your weaknesses into your strengths.
A significant factor in how well these support troops have adapted to the unfamiliar mission is that they support one another and share close ties, said Barnes. The Soldiers of A Company grew up in the same communities, attending the same schools and churches, some belonging to the same extended families, said Barnes.
"I'm related to 10 people in the Company," said Barnes. "This is my first deployment, and to be over here with family is a lot of support. When I come back from a mission, my cousins will stop by to see that I'm okay. We'll talk about the mission, all of us together like that. And I do the same thing when they come back from missions, go to and see how it went. That's a pretty good feeling to have so many family here."
Spc. Christopher Shaw, a scout gunner from Taylorsville, Miss., said that sharing a lengthy past with fellow Soldiers is comforting.
"We share a lot in common," said Shaw. "You can relate to people who knew you way before you joined the Guard. You can talk about things that happened five years ago, and people know."
Shaw said that Soldiers from other units notice the difference.
"The California Guard unit we replaced, they noticed that we were different," said Shaw. "They said, 'You all are so close. We aren't that close.' 'That's because we have a lot of people are kin to each other,' we said, 'a lot of cousins, even a couple brothers, and most of us grew up together, graduated the same schools.'"
Shaw said his unit received great support from its rural Mississippi communities.
"We were talking to those guys from California, and we asked them what kind of celebrations their hometowns had for them when they left. They said, 'Our hometowns didn't even notice when we left.' We told them it was crazy, the support we got when we left. The whole town turned out to say goodbye. Really, that meant a lot to me. I'll never forget it as long as I live."
Spc. James B. Mangum, a gunner from Magee, Miss., said the hometown support raised his spirits and confirmed his love of rural life.
"It's good for morale, the hometown support," said Mangum. "That's why I'm glad I come from a small town. Those California guys, they were from big cities, and the cities didn't notice when they left."