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Strikeforce driver Spc. Rigoberto Tovar, left, aims to bring back his leader, Lt. Col. Thomas Graves, safely home from Iraq.

Strikeforce driver Spc. Rigoberto Tovar, left, aims to bring back his leader, Lt. Col. Thomas Graves, safely home from Iraq. (Seth Robson / S&S)

Strikeforce driver Spc. Rigoberto Tovar, left, aims to bring back his leader, Lt. Col. Thomas Graves, safely home from Iraq.

Strikeforce driver Spc. Rigoberto Tovar, left, aims to bring back his leader, Lt. Col. Thomas Graves, safely home from Iraq. (Seth Robson / S&S)

Strikeforce drivers Sgt. Ray Gonzales, Spc. Rigoberto Tovar, Sgt. Joe Ramos and Sgt. James Coombs, left to right, relax in their hooch at Camp Buehring, Kuwait.

Strikeforce drivers Sgt. Ray Gonzales, Spc. Rigoberto Tovar, Sgt. Joe Ramos and Sgt. James Coombs, left to right, relax in their hooch at Camp Buehring, Kuwait. (Seth Robson / S&S)

CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait — The 8th Army boxing champion and three tough hombres share the responsibility of keeping 2nd Infantry Division leaders safe on the roads of Iraq during a year-long deployment.

The four are drivers with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, and work for brigade commander Col. Gary S. Patton; deputy commander Lt. Col. Thomas Graves; executive officer Lt. Col. Bob Bialek; and Brigade Sgt. Maj. Marvell Dean.

All are expert infantrymen and double as bodyguards for the leaders in Strikeforce.

Dean’s driver, Sgt. James Coombs, is one of the largest men in the brigade and the 8th Army boxing champion. Spc. Rigoberto Tovar, who drives for the deputy commander, competed in the Golden Gloves amateur boxing competition.

Before he left South Korea, Coombs promised all 2nd ID sergeants major that Dean would come home safely, he said. The other drivers are just as determined to do the same for the leaders they protect, they said.

The group rates itself as the best and safest wheelmen in the brigade.

“We can go anywhere,” Coombs said. “Between us, we have probably got 50,000 accident-free miles in Korea. You know how dangerous the roads in Korea can be.”

The drivers are quick to point out that their jobs involve more than just driving and acting as bodyguards.

Sgt. Ray Gonzales, an accomplished dancer, has helped take care of Bialek’s children and pets, picked up dry cleaning and sold Girl Scout cookies as part of his job.

“People think you just drive, but we have to take care of them (the leaders) first before we can take care of our own stuff,” said Sgt. Joe Ramos, who drives for Patton.

Drivers have to be trustworthy, Combs said.

“Sergeant Major Dean is involved in the Sergeant Majors’ Association. We had a Christmas card sale, and I had to distribute and collect the money for all the cards. I had about $20,000 in cash go through my hands,” he said.

The group also gets to see a different side to the brigade leaders that front-line soldiers don’t, they said.

Coombs’ work with the association has exposed him to the lighter side of sergeant majors, he said.

“They are known for making spot corrections and being in people’s butts constantly. I get to see them when they let their hair down. When they have a farewell they cut loose. They are people too,” he said.

The drivers rate Dean the hardest taskmaster of the brigade leaders.

“When it comes to paperwork, this dude is so meticulous it is ridiculous. He thinks of every little detail,” Coombs said.

Bialek likes to get an answer to his questions immediately, Gonzales said.

“He says, ‘cricket, cricket’ if people don’t answer his questions right away,” he said.

Graves is a fitness fanatic, said Tovar, the newest on the job.

“He’s always running 10 miles, swimming five miles and riding his bike another 10 miles. He always says [physical training] is not enough,” he said.

Patton likes to make sure things get done right, Ramos said.

The small band of drivers find themselves always together, working or waiting for the next assignment. Back in South Korea they drank together at the Pan-Korea club in Tongduchon. The three Hispanic drivers, all members of La Gente, a Hispanic fraternity, are teaching Coombs about Mexican culture, they said.

On a typical day in Kuwait, where the Strikeforce is preparing for its Iraq mission, the drivers could find themselves running errands for their boss around Camp Buehring or headed to Port Shu’aiba to check on the movement of equipment.

They know that more dangerous challenges await them in Iraq but remain determined to make sure their leaders return safely.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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