Despite advanced age, Guard unit keeps on trucking
July 2, 2004
CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait — At nearly 50 years of age, the hardest working members of the 1244th Transportation Company have proved they can do everything their younger counterparts can do, and then some.
The 1244th, an Illinois National Guard unit from North Riverside, is one of only two units currently supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom II that uses the old M818 semi-trucks, according to Capt. Rhonda Petersen, unit commander. The trucks rolled off the assembly line in the 1950s.
But age hasn’t stopped the unit from chewing up roads in Kuwait and Iraq.
“We’ve driven a total of 3.4 million miles, with the average mission being between 150 to 200 miles,” Petersen said of the unit’s 17 months here. They also have not had one combat loss or injury, or lost a load or truck during a mission, Petersen said.
According to one transportation specialist, or driver, the unit’s good fortune has been because of how they operate.
“Every time we go to Iraq, we always look intimidating by a show of force,” said Sgt. Jose Sanchez.
What also helps missions run smoothly are the 17 mechanics. Petersen said the wrench turners were working 16 to 18 hours a day the first six months in Kuwait.
Sgt. Andrew Lang, one of the mechanics, said that during those first months, they virtually had no parts for their vintage trucks.
“We did a lot of transfers from one truck to another,” Lang said, “kind of rob from Paul to give to Peter.”
Even when they got parts, they still had to get creative. Lang said the mechanics were doing maintenance one level above what most were trained to do and didn’t always have the right tools. They would borrow from other units or improvise to get the job done.
Because the trucks are so old, fellow mechanic Spc. Matthew Palm said, the unit has scrapped 10 percent of its fleet due to problems such as blown engines or bad transmissions.
Sanchez said it seemed as though the trucks knew when they were on a mission in Iraq, and would perform almost perfectly.
“We wouldn’t have any problems in Iraq, but once we came back in the Truckville gate, they would start acting up and leaking,” he said.
One advantage the mechanics have here is the heat. Palm said that when the unit was mobilized, 30 percent of its trucks went down because of the cold weather of northern Illinois. He said it was a three-hour project just to get the trucks started because the diesel fuel would gel in the lines.
Sanchez agreed that the hot, dry climate here makes the trucks perform better.
“In the States, top speed was about 30 [mph],” Sanchez said. “Here we do well over 50.”
The drivers of the 1244th seem to prefer the older truck to newer versions, even though their vehicles don’t have air conditioning.
“It gets hot in there with the heat from the engine,” Sanchez said. “It gets about 150 in the cab and you’ve got all your gear on. The 915s [newer trucks] would drive by with ‘Brr, it’s cold in here’ written on their doors.”
Sanchez said they would write their own message of “don’t laugh, it’s paid for.”
Petersen said she’s proud of the soldiers in her unit for coming together and working hard. She said the unit may be home soon — it has a flight date for late July. But, she said, this is its fourth flight date, and there’s always a possibility the unit could be extended.
Sgt. Donald May, transportation specialist, said he prefers the old trucks to the new because they’re tougher and don’t get stuck in the sand as easily.
“They’re built to take a beating and they have,” May said. “These trucks are old, but they are reliable. We may not be the pride of the Army, but without us, pride don’t ride.”