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A Day Like Any Other for Marine Truckers

HELMAND PROVINCE, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – The Marines showed up for work at 2 a.m. to make sure their vehicles and the cargo loaded on them were ready for the long day ahead, July 28.

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Story by Gunnery Sgt. Chris W. Cox
Date: 07.28.2009
Posted: 07.31.2009

The sky starts getting light here shortly after 4:30 a.m., so they made their way to the chow hall in the dark for their pre-convoy brief.

Roll call, convoy brief, a prayer by the chaplain, grab some quick chow and they were on their way back in the pre-dawn light to the 19 vehicles staged a half mile away. One late addition to the cargo was a 73,000-pound, John Deere combat excavator that needed to be loaded onto a flatbed trailer and hauled to Combat Outpost Geronimo – the day's destination. This particular route was new for this platoon, and dangerous, as rumor had it – rumors spread by Marines in other sections who had made this trip. The rumors were true.

"I didn't know if it was a tire or an IED. These tires make a big boom when they go," said Cpl. Baldemar Flores, who was driving the logistics vehicle system, towing the excavator. "Then I looked back and saw the trailer got hit and a little bit farther was the hole."

After only 90 minutes on the road – and a distance of less than five miles – Combat Logistics Battalion 8's Transportation Support Platoon had triggered an IED and delayed the convoy for a short time. Fortunately, no one was injured.

TSP hauls almost all of the cargo carried from Camp Dwyer to all of Regimental Combat Team 3's combat outposts and forward operating bases throughout Helmand province. Unlike civilian truckers on highways in the States, part of the work involved in ferrying passengers, equipment and supplies around this country is simply maintaining situational awareness. From the turret gunners who man .50 caliber, 7.62mm and 40mm machine guns to the drivers themselves who follow in the tracks of the vehicle in front of them, being able to tell when something is not right is a very important ability.

"You never know what to expect," said 1st Lt. Charles Lamb, the convoy commander on this route. "I knew on this one there was a good chance we'd get blown up. This is a dangerous route."

Since Lamb's Marines were on this route for the first time, he and they had spoken with others who had made this trip before. The information that they received painted a clear enough picture of what might happen.

In a unit that faces potential danger regularly – even the danger of the unknown – they develop a bond that goes beyond professional requirements. The younger Marines become little brothers and sisters, and the lieutenant becomes dad.

"When they hit the IED, I was a nervous wreck," Lamb recalled. "I've been with these guys for a year. Our platoon is very much like a family."

Meanwhile, Flores's feelings after experiencing the blast from inside the cab were much different. For a few critical moments, his radio wouldn't work. Oblivious to the fact that the rest of the convoy was waiting for any news about him, he was focused on the inconvenience of being slowed down by an irritating explosion.

"The whole day – the whole truck issue – I was mad," he said. "We'd been working on that truck all day long. I was just hoping it didn't get blown up."

Waiting to hear from his potentially injured Marine, Lamb wrestled with his own feelings in his vehicle farther ahead in the convoy. After a few tense moments listening to the radio, good news put the Colorado City, Texan back into action.

"When I heard Cpl. Flores's voice over the radio, that shifted my gears from 'they're ok' to 'how do I get us out of this mess? I gotta get these guys out of here,'" said Lamb. "I was worried about secondary IEDs. Usually where there's one, there's two."

While the convoy was moving to a safe stand-off distance, one of Flores's best friends was moving to assist him from his vehicle immediately behind.

"All I remember was a huge cloud of smoke and dirt, like four or five stories high," explained Lance Cpl. Eric Valdez from Houston. "My job is security/sweeper. As I was sweeping up to the vic [vehicle], that's when our Doc, Doc Brawner [Petty Officer 3rd Class Donnell Brawner, hospital corpsman], came up. I was sweeping up and he was close behind. We were about 10 feet behind the trailer when I heard my first solid ping."

Marine mine sweepers use modified metal detectors to identify unexploded IEDs. Usually when the detector lets out a certain tone, it's time to be careful. Valdez calmly continued to thoroughly sweep the area and proceeded to the vehicle's cab.

"At the time I was very nervous. I knew I might get hurt myself, but I just had to get it done to get to my corporal," he said. "Finally after me and the doc swept up there safely, we got to the vehicle doors and found them safe."

All of this took place before 10 a.m. Later, the quick reaction force arrived to provide additional security and investigate a white van that had been acting suspiciously until it got stuck in the sand within sight of the convoy. The QRF arrived with a retrieval vehicle, a new trailer and a heavy equipment operator to transfer the combat excavator and help the convoy roll on to its destination – still three hours away.

In addition to transferring the heavy equipment to the new trailer, it also took several hours to make repairs to the LVS' hydraulics system so the new trailer could be coupled to it.

Even with the delay in the middle of nowhere, the convoy still made it to a safe place just as night was falling. The Marines stopped at a weigh point – Fire Base Fiddler's Green – in order to get some rest and push the rest of the way with the next day's early light.

The next morning, Flores received plenty of friendly comments and remarks about his adventure – another sign of a family taking care of its own.

"These guys are giving Cpl. Flores a hard time, and he's joking back with them, which is good," Lamb said shortly before the convoy rolled out of COP Geronimo on its way back to Camp Dwyer. "They're making sure he's ok, and they're coming together to protect him."

"One good thing about this is no one got hurt," he said. "This just re-affirms IEDs are out there and they're dangerous, but chances are in these vehicles, you're going to walk away from it."

Confidence is another thing that is required in this job. When service members are driving nearly every day in an environment where the enemy's primary tactic is to mine the roads and supply routes, being good at one's job is only half of it. Marines have to have faith in themselves and those around them, but, like the lieutenant says, they also have to be a family.