Mission: Getting it there

  • Published
  • By Richard W. Essary
  • 75th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Television and radio dedicate significant airtime to rush-hour traffic in hopes of navigating motorists away from the perils that exist on roadways.

Ads are everywhere -- don't drink and drive, don't text and drive -- on hazards that make driving even more risky.

In short, driving can be a dangerous business and nothing could be closer to the truth for the Airmen in Hill Air Force Base's 75th Logistics Readiness Squadron.

More than 25 Airmen and 15 civilians assigned to the 75th LRS Vehicle Operations Flight handle almost all of the installation's vehicle operations and play a critical role supporting convoy operations downrange.

It's a busy business, said Tech. Sgt. Matthew Buchanan, the flight's distribution section chief.

"Our mission (at home) is to provide vehicle and mobility support to Hill Air Force Base and to other units that visit the base. Things are moving all the time," he said.

The unit's unofficial motto: "Without our assets, your ass sits." It's a motto that speaks to the vastness of the unit's mission.

This year alone, the unit has supported tens of thousands of customers with everything from "you-drive-it" and taxi services to forklift, cargo, crane and tractor trailer operations.

But their impact on the Air Force mission reaches far beyond the base's gates.

It's a risky business

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been predominantly supported by the Army and Marines, but the Air Force has increasingly been relied upon to support "in lieu of" positions.

Airmen have been asked to fill jobs they wouldn't traditionally do, because of manning shortages across the Air Force's sister services -- something Buchanan and others in his unit have experienced firsthand.

During his nine year tenure at Hill Air Force Base, nearly all of the Airmen in vehicle operations who have deployed, including him, have gone in support of "in lieu of" positions; more specifically, convoy operations.

Convoys are necessary to transport food, weapons, equipment and even deliver the mail to the hundreds of thousands of service members deployed throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's hard work that's often treacherous, but very rewarding.

In 2010, Buchanan deployed to Kuwait, the central hub for convoys operating in the region.

During his seven month deployment, he said Airmen conducted 78 percent of all the convoys conducted in the area.

"A lot of Soldiers and Marines still don't know (the Air Force) does convoy operations and many are surprised by how well we do the job, and that we get it done safely," Buchanan said.

He said the convoy missions he participated in took as long as 20 days to complete.

Convoys made up of tractor trailers and security vehicles, sometimes stretching more than two miles long, travel some of the most hostile roads on the planet.

"Throughout a mission, a convoy is faced with the possibility of improvised explosive devices, small arms attacks and ambushes before arriving at their final destination," Buchanan said. "Then after arriving, it takes anywhere between 36 to 52 hours to download and upload cargo."

In all, the convoy teams Buchanan deployed with completed 180 combat missions. The combined total miles traveled by all convoy vehicles during his seven month deployment equaled 4.3 million miles, which is enough to circle the earth more than 120 times.

Like dodging bullets

Staff Sgt. Chad Williams, who oversees the unit's licensing operations, spends most of his days issuing government driver's licenses to military and civilians on base.

But he knows the dangers of deployment all too well, having been tasked five times since 2003.

His first experience with convoys was from 2004 to 2005.

In 2004, when his career field "found out about gun trucks," he immediately volunteered to deploy.

"At first we were told we would be driving trucks helping out the Army, but it turned out that we were going to be part of a convoy security team," Williams said.

Following pre-deployment training in San Antonio, Texas, he found himself supporting convoys as a .50 caliber gunner on top of an armored vehicle in Iraq.

Many of the convoys during his deployment became targets for small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades.

Williams said most of the convoys were performed at night and because the rules of engagement directed him and others not shoot back unless they could see exactly who was shooting at them, the darkness made them feel like they were just dodging bullets.

Driving in a convoy is like driving on a deserted highway in the middle of a desert, Williams said.

"Imagine if someone was shooting at you from behind some sagebrush, but you didn't know where or even what direction it's coming from," he said.

He said he feels lucky he was never hit, but the experience opened his eyes to the dangers of convoy operations.

Williams deployed two more times to Kuwait in 2007 and 2010. Both times he supported convoy operations.

On Day Two of a two-week mission during his 2007 deployment he explained an occasion when the "roads went black," and his team received orders to travel to the nearest safe location.

Intelligence reports indicated a convoy was being targeted in a particular region of Iraq, but it was unclear where exactly.

But the message nearly came too late.

"As we were pulling into the base we started getting mortared," Williams said. "One of the mortars hit in front of me and I could hear the shrapnel hitting my truck. Another mortar hit behind me."

He said the attack only lasted a few minutes, but it seemed like forever.

Fire in the hole

Staff Sgt. Chris Pavlin, who manages the flight's training office, also knows firsthand the dangers that exist to convoy drivers.

His job at home is training fellow and usually junior drivers how to operate different types of military vehicles, particularly around aircraft on the flight line.

Following his graduation from basic training, his first duty station was Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

It was there he deployed for the first time.

He recalls being somewhat nervous when he found out he would be deploying to support convoy operations out of Kuwait.

"I'd heard stories about people getting killed, so I was a little apprehensive. But I was also gung-ho and ready to go," Pavlin said.

He said his most daunting experience was his fourth or fifth mission during that 2007 Kuwait deployment. It was a 10-day convoy mission into Iraq.

He and other drivers in the convoy had intelligence that the route they were taking was "hot" and more than usual they needed to be on the lookout.

Three days into the mission the forewarning became reality.

On Jan. 15, 2008, a roadside bomb struck Pavlin's truck about 500 yards from an Iraqi checkpoint.

The blast engulfed his entire truck in flames causing him to hit his head on the truck's steering wheel.

His first thought: "You've got to be kidding me."

He recalls his truck commander, who was sitting in his truck's passenger seat, radioing the convoy commander to let him know their truck had been hit and then the two of them fled the truck.

When Pavlin jumped out, his weapon sling got hung up and pulled him back into the fire, igniting his boots.

Pavlin said his truck commander dove out of the truck "Superman style," but in doing so he landed in a pool of fuel leaking from the truck and he immediately caught fire.

It was only a matter of seconds, but Pavlin said he remembers patting out the flames on his boots and then chasing after his truck commander to help smother the fire on him.

"We ended up having to strip off his clothes and cut off his boots," Pavlin said. "We got him into another vehicle and crossed over to get away from my truck that was engulfed in flames."

Pavlin and others then wrapped him in a blanket before one of the medics in the convoy showed up to give him morphine and radioed for a helicopter to evacuate him from the area.

He was hospitalized for weeks with severe burns on his body.

"A lot of stuff led up to that scenario," Pavlin said.

His truck commander was actually supposed to drive the truck that day, but because he had a headache, he asked if Pavlin would drive instead.

Following the event Pavlin struggled with the "what ifs" of that day's events.

While he's been able to work through most of the guilt, he's often reminded of the event whenever he hears loud noises, particularly fireworks displays.

"I try to avoid them if I can," Pavlin said.

In spite of his near-death experience he does have several good memories about the deployment.

"When you do convoys you deploy with more than a hundred people. You get this team and the whole time -- 7 to 8 months --you're with them," Pavlin said. "That is one of the best things. The camaraderie and the sense of family you build with your team."

Not a 'cake' walk

Today, the home station mission continues and so do the deployments.

There are more than 10 Airmen from the 75th LRS Vehicle Operations Flight currently deployed in support of convoy operations, which is something Williams believes his peers should welcome with open arms.

"I always tell the people I work with who haven't deployed yet, 'You have to go do this,'ΓΆΓΆ" he said. "For me to talk to someone who has never done it, it's different than talking to someone who has done it, because they understand. It's like a brotherhood."

He agrees the camaraderie developed on a deployment is second to none, but the brotherhood isn't only reserved for those Airmen who support convoy operations.

Pavlin said he knows very well the danger Airmen in other career fields experience during a deployment. He just doesn't think a lot of people know the occupational hazards inherent in his line of work.

"I've noticed a lot of times when we're driving individuals around base, other Airmen refer to us as, 'Hey driver,'" he said. "They think this is all we do and I don't think people realize that when we're deployed we're delivering their mail, food, and lead needed to put downrange."

"It's about mutual respect," he said.

Buchanan has a similar view.

"We drive some of the most dangerous roads every day," he said. "Vehicle operations may look like a 'cake' job, but when we're deployed, we're in a war zone 24/7."