Originally published April 22, 2007
The four Humvee “gun trucks” are all packed. The 45 tractor- trailer rigs, all driven by civilians, are lined up and ready to go.
It’s just after dark on Thursday. In a few minutes, this seemingly endless procession of men and machinery will snake out of a dusty lot, crawl across the nearby border to Iraq and roll toward Camp Cedar, a U.S. military transportation depot about 150 miles to the north.
It’s called a “sustainment push,” so named because it propels everything – food, fuel, water, supplies – needed to keep Operation Iraqi Freedom running day after day after day.
Getting it there safely is the job of the 1-121 Field Artillery Battalion’s Alpha Company, which includes 77 soldiers form the Maine Army National Guard.
Through the night, the four Humvees, each carrying three soldiers, will travel at the front, the rear and at two points in the middle of the convoy.
They’ll protect the lumbering “white trucks” (so named for their mostly white cabs) from insurgent attacks along Highway Tampa – the main supply route into Iraq. They’ll also keep an eye out for hijackers, who plot not to destroy the trucks and their cargo, but rather to steal them.
“The hijackers will wait for a spot in the convoy where a gun truck’s not in sight and they’ll slip up to the truck,” explains Spc. Arthur Wing, 19, of Richmond. “They’ll smash the window and put an AK-47 to the driver, pull him out and grab the truck.”
Standing next to Wing, Spc. Hugh Goodfellow, 20, of West Bath, nods.
“Then what they’ll do is take these trucks and turn them back to us,” Goodfellow says. “And they’ll get the reward money for doing that. I’ve heard it can be as much as forty grand.”
Unlike other convoy-security details that can last one, two, even three weeks at a time, this one’s a piece of cake: Three or four hours up, one or two hours dropping off the northbound convoy and picking up a southbound one, then three or four hours back to the safety of Camp Navistar.
“Something blows up, hopefully it hits one of those trucks, not us,” says Wing, 19, who this time last year was preparing to graduate from Gardiner High School. That’s the sad truth.”
It is, after nine months here, part of the daily grind for these Mainers who have begun counting the days – “What are we at, 89 or 88?” Wing asks Goodfellow – before they’ll board an airliner and bid this godforsaken desert
But as daily grinds go, this one can be anything but routine. Maybe the 12 soldiers in this security detail will get back here before the sun comes up.
And maybe they won’t.
The convoy pulls out just before 9 p.m. Goodfellow is behind the wheel of the lead Humvee. Wing is in the gun turret. Sgt. Randy Bowen, 44, of Calais, sits in the front passenger seat – as truck commander, he’ll handle all communications with the other Humvees.
All three soldiers will keep a close eye on the road ahead, looking for anything out of the ordinary that might betray an insurgent’s IED (improvised explosive device). Between here and Camp Cedar, two IED’s have been found and destroyed by detonation teams in the past 24 hours.
But truth be told, as they roll north, the soldiers know they’re at fate’s mercy.
“They say keep an eye out for IED’s,” says Wing. “But you’re not going to see it. If you see it, it’s not an IED, you know what I mean? These guys are not stupid.”
Goodfellow puts it more succinctly.
“They’re hidden,” he says.
Clearing the border, Goodfellow nudges the Humvee to 10 mph, then 20, then 30 . . . until the entire convoy reaches its 55-mph cruising speed along the six-lane, divided highway.
It’s still widely remembered as the “Highway of Death,” along which scores of Iraqi soldiers were killed escaping from coalition forces in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
But these days, with countless convoys ferrying troops, equipment and supplies into and out of the four-year-old war zone, it’s been renamed the “Highway to Hell.”
It is, even on a good day, a two-way free-for-all.
If there’s slow-moving traffic ahead, a northbound convoy might cross over and use the southbound lane – and vice-versa. It’s not uncommon for convoys, some two or three miles long, to pass in opposite directions on the same side.
Even the handful of civilian motorists who venture out here at night know the rules of the road – a euphemism if ever there was one.
“We call it the ‘Open Door Policy,'” Bowen explains. “If (individual drivers) want to pass us northbound, they have to do it in the southbound lane.”
Little wonder that almost all of the guardrails are missing. And most of the metal posts that once supported them are either bent to the ground or broken off completely.
All is going well as the convoy clears the Iraqi border town of Safwan and cuts a swath of light – white to the north and red to the south – through the desert darkness.
But then, about 40 miles into the trip, a call comes from the rear Humvee to 2nd Lt. Rommel Ferrer, a National Guardsman from Nevada, who commands the convoy from the third gun truck.
“Yeah, we have a truck that’s swerving all over the place,” reports Sgt. Jeremy Cote of Lewiston from the rear Humvee. “I don’t know why he’s doing it, but I’m going to keep an eye on him – if it gets worse, I’ll let you know.”
It gets worse. The rear gun truck speeds ahead so its gunner, Pfc. David Sweatt of Rumford, can take a look.
But the swerving tractor-trailer almost hits the Humvee.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with him, if he’s drunk or something,” reports Cote. “But he’s not going straight at all.
Whoa! He just almost hit the truck in front of him!”
With that, Ferrer orders the entire convoy to a halt – something no soldier likes to do in a place where danger can lurk anywhere. It turns out the driver, a newcomer from the Philippines, is having trouble with his brakes – and with his nerves.
“Man, I’m getting sick of baby-sitting these (expletive) people,” Goodfellow mutters as he slows to a stop.
The convoy waits while a heavy-duty tow truck, operated by Department of Defense contractor KBR, is summoned to haul the malfunctioning rig back to a holding lot. The anxious driver hitches a ride aboard another truck.
After a 40-minute delay, the lead Humvee starts rolling again. As unplanned stops go, this one wasn’t bad.
But the next one is.
Approaching a slower convoy also headed north, Bowen radios back for permission to take the next crossover and pass it in the southbound lane.
Ferrer says go ahead.
A break in the median appears – tight but doable. Goodfellow veers to the left and guides his Humvee through it, and one by one, the big rigs follow.
But unknown to anyone, the passage contains a few guardrail posts broken off at ground level. By the time the convoy completes the crossover, three tractor-trailers have flat tires.
“Stop the convoy! Stop the convoy!” orders Ferrer.
Obscenities fly over the lead Humvee’s intercom. Flat tires can take time – lots of time – to fix.
It’s going to be a long night.
Sitting in the warm, night air, sweating under their Kevlar helmets and 55-pound armor-plated vests, the soldiers wait while the slow-motion pit stop plays out dozens of trucks behind them.
Another northbound convoy roars by in the southbound lane, kicking up blinding dust as it passes. Two southbound civilian vehicles go by in the northbound lane – Bowen notes that one has a casket on its roof.
“It’s pretty common around here,” says Goodfellow. “You see cars rolling down the road with a casket on top – I keep waiting for the day one of them falls off.”
The delay drags on – one hour, two, three. Two flats have been fixed, but according to the radio traffic, they’re having trouble finding a good tire the same size as the third and last one.
A suitable spare is finally located aboard another truck, but its driver is reluctant to give it up. The crew from the second Humvee convinces him – in no uncertain terms – that it’s not up to him.
Up at the front of the convoy, Wing and Goodfellow have broken out the MRE’s (meals ready to eat) in search of a midnight snack. They talk about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – trying to decide which one reminds them most of Alpha Company’s widely respected Chief Warrant Officer David Cheney of Castle Hill.
“Shredder,” proclaims Goodfellow. “Chief is like the Shredder. He doesn’t just send his guys in – he gets in there himself and (expletive) stuff up.”
“You’re right,” Wing agrees. “Chief’s the Shredder.”
More time passes. More progress reports flow through the headphones. More idle chatter between a pair of boys-turned-men.
“I just decided I probably should have joined the Air Force,” says Wing, who headed for Army basic training right out of high school. “I should have ‘crossed into the blue’ instead of ‘being all I can be.’ “
Goodfellow chuckles. Take away the sand, the weapons and the body armor, and this could be a northern Maine camping trip.
“People don’t see this (expletive),” says Wing. “They see all the things getting blown up in Iraq, but they don’t see this.”
Finally, mercifully, the order comes to start rolling again. The convoy is still only about halfway to Camp Cedar – mile after hypnotic mile of uninterrupted desert still awaits.
But they make it without further trouble. The eastern sky is growing light as the lead Humvee winds its way down the serpentine lane leading to Camp Cedar’s main gate. It’s just after 5 a.m.
“At last,” sighs a weary voice on the truck intercom. The tractor- trailers go one way, the security detail another.
The soldiers’ first order of business: breakfast at the camp’s already bustling dining facility.
From there, they head en masse for an empty tent – one of dozens set up in perfect rows that houses an equally symmetric arrangement of bunk beds.
The bleary-eyed soldiers shuffle in – some with overnight gear, some not. Without a word, they fan out and each claims a bunk.
In less than five minutes, the tent is silent.
Five hours later, the soldiers roll out of bed, step out into the blinding, late-Friday-morning sun and wait for word on what’s next.
There’s talk of having to link up with another armored unit that’s bound for Camp Navistar but is currently stalled 75 miles to the north – an IED hit a munitions truck the night before and the road south is closed while the fire burns itself out.
Waiting for that unit could mean not getting out of here until after dark. But 1st Lt. John Gates of Topsham, who’s Alpha Company’s second in command and has helped fill in on this convoy as a driver, makes a few calls and . . . problem solved.
“We’ll get ready to roll in about 30, maybe 40 minutes,” Gates tells the relieved detail.
It’s another 45-truck escort – this time through daylight.
Along the way, Iraqi men, woman and, most of all, children run toward the side of the highway when they see the trucks coming. Some wave. Others hold out their hands in silent pleas for an MRE, a bottle of water, anything.
“We tell (the soldiers) not to throw them stuff because we’re afraid the kids will get too close and get run over,” says Gates, a former police officer who has two young children back home in Maine.
But the civilian truck drivers, most from impoverished countries themselves, go by different rules: Even as Gates speaks, a box of donations flies from the window of a tractor-trailer cab and lands at the feet of a young Iraqi woman. Smiling, she waves back in gratitude.
The return trip passes uneventfully – save the minutes-old, non- convoy tractor-trailer rollover in the opposite lane . . . the truck in this convoy that locks its brakes during a slowdown and, tires smoking, avoids hitting the rig in front of it by mere inches . . . the dozens of flies that fill the Humvees – and stay there – whenever the
procession slows below 25 mph.
But at long last, the border is in sight. Passing through the gauntlet of gates into Camp Navistar, the Humvees peel away from the tractor-trailers one last time and head back to their staging area.
The trip that was supposed to last about eight hours has taken almost a full night and day. Some of these soldiers could be back on the road 12 hours from now – most will certainly go back out in the next day or so.
But everyone is safe. Nothing blew up but a few tires. One more mission down and how many to go?
Standing in his gunner’s turret in the second Humvee, Spc. Jeffrey Atwood of Anson strips off his heavy body armor. His olive T- shirt, soaked through with sweat, sticks to his skin.
Free at last.
“This,” Atwood says, holding up the vest with a broad smile, “is the best part of the whole trip.”