Boredom, chaos split time during two-day journeys on Iraqi Express
November 10, 2004
Until last spring, the Iraqi Express was a sleepy supply run that gave the soldiers and the contractors who drove it nothing worse than hemorrhoids.
But the constant threat of roadside explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and car bombs all across Iraq have turned this war’s supply lines into the front lines. The Iraqi Express still offers nod-inducing hours of boredom, but they are punctuated by short stretches of wide-eyed fear.
Running the Express — a daily spare-parts truck convoy from Camp Navistar, Kuwait, to LSA Anaconda in Balad, Iraq — is the work of the 1486th and 1487th Transportation companies from the Ohio National Guard, which now are filled with seasoned veterans after eight hard months.
“Some days, everything seems to flow and run extremely smooth,” said Staff Sgt. Dan Miller, 29, a convoy commander for the 1487th. “Some days, everything goes wrong.”
The Iraqi Express is one of two convoys running to Anaconda with supplies from the Theater Distribution Center at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.
The first one, the Sustainer Push, fills everyday needs such as fuel, ice, water, mail, motor oil and paper. Contractors from the Halliburton subsidiary KBR drive the trucks, which are escorted in steps by military units as troops are free to do the job.
The Iraqi Express hauls supplies that unit commanders in Iraq need fast. If a battalion in Samarra needs a new transmission to put a Bradley fighting vehicle back in action, odds are good it would arrive from Arifjan on the Iraqi Express.
A mix of contract (white) and Army (green) trucks haul the supplies to Navistar, a dusty, fly-ridden truck stop of a camp two miles south of the Iraq border. It is home to more than 1,000 troops, most of them from Guard or Reserve units like the 1486th and 1487th transportation companies.
The Iraqi Express never came under hostile fire until March, just as the two Ohio companies took over from another unit.
The trucks traveled with few guns and no armor. But as the insurgency raged in April, bomb and grenade attacks picked up, and kidnappers began snatching and killing contract truck drivers.
The attacks have spread south in the past three months as the rebellion has widened, truckers said. Now they don’t feel safe anywhere in Iraq.
“It’s worse,” Miller said. “The attacks are up. They’re finding more serious ways to attack, with the car bombs and everything.”
Although troops spend most of their time driving through some of Iraq’s roughest neighborhoods, as a Kuwait-based unit they weren't eligible for armored Humvees.
“We’ve escorted [armored] Hummers, but we don’t have them ourselves,” said Sgt. 1st Class Joe Litchard, 33, a gun truck driver.
“We don’t get the high-speed stuff the 3rd Infantry Division or 2nd Infantry Division get,” added Sgt. 1st Class Stephan Mikes, 37, of Columbus, Ohio. “We make do with what we’ve got.”
So they formed the 518th Gun Truck Company, a provisional unit manned with volunteers from the other National Guard companies.
The units scrounged up armor kits and fortified their Hummers with “hillbilly armor.” They bulked up a five-ton truck with steel plates, painting the front with a fierce-looking open mouth and giant teeth.
“One of our convoys is not an idle target,” said Lt. Col. Jim Sagen, commander of the 106th Transportation Battalion, which oversees convoy operations out of Navistar. “You have five very veteran truck companies, heavily armed. We are a tough bunch to tangle with.”
The armor, soldiers say, covers up problems. These Humvees put on 700-800 miles a week in punishing desert conditions while carrying far more weight than they were meant to. Breakdowns occur often. When they happen on the road, they put soldiers’ lives in peril.
“It’s a constant uphill battle to keep the trucks running,” said Cpl. Ryan Swenson of the 518th, a 25-year-old college student from Germantown, Ohio.
In spite of the constant danger, no soldiers or civilians have been killed on the Iraqi Express. The soldiers who run it say that’s because of their pit-bull attitude.
“Part of our key to success is to maintain an extremely aggressive posture,” Litchard said. “We engage the enemy.”
Two weeks ago, they did just that. On Oct. 18, the Iraqi Express rolled through Main Supply Route Sword, the Army name for a 12-mile stretch of divided highway in a run-down part of Baghdad’s western suburbs.
The convoy rolled up to an overpass, where another unit had stopped traffic to investigate a roadside bomb. Forced to stop, the 518th gun truckers started climbing out to secure the area.
Suddenly two rocket-propelled grenades sailed past them and slammed into the overpass. From a two-story yellow-brown house across the highway came a hail of automatic weapons fire.
In moments they pulled their trucks into position and sprayed the house with bullets from their M249 Squad Automatic Weapons and M16s. In less then two minutes, all fire stopped. Venturing inside, soldiers found eight dead insurgents, and blood trails indicating others had been shot. No one in the convoy had been hurt, and none of the cargo was damaged.
“We didn’t talk on the radio, we just did it,” Swenson said. “It all came together like clockwork.”
It felt terrific to shoot back at an enemy who rarely steps out of the shadows, soldiers said.
“I was shaking in the turret. When it was over, I said ‘I can’t believe we just did what we did,’”recalled Sgt. Steven Lourigan, 26, a dive-shop owner from Summerville, S.C. “It was a big stress relief to actually get some frustration out.”
“It could have been a really bad day,” added Mikes, who commanded the gun trucks that day. “Luckily, it turned out OK.”