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NEWS | Dec. 29, 2010

National Guardmembers embark on first convoy

By Courtesy Story

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq - As the countryside around Joint Base Balad, Iraq, slept Dec. 12, National Guardsmen with eastern Oregon’s 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 103rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), labored under the large, hard white klieg lights stationed at intervals around their compound.

The lights pushed shadows away from the line of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, where the Guardmembers, who are with Company F of the 116th Cavalry Regiment, made last-minute adjustments to their equipment.

As he walked through the shadows, the convoy escort team commander, Army Staff Sgt. Tony Cox, confirmed each crew was ready to move out. He answered questions, verified radio frequencies and then confirmed his orders for the day.

As daylight shoved the night away, Cox put on his body armor and helmet and hopped into the MRAP he commands, Fighter 41.

“Time to go,” he said.

The convoy escort team drove out of their compound and traveled to a large, open area where dozens of semi-trucks idled in the early morning sun.

Cox then left Fighter 41 to make final preparations with the convoy coordinator.

Part of the job for Cox at the truck park revolved around ensuring all the paperwork for the mission was in order. Another key piece revolved around checking the semis, he said.

“I need to make sure the trucks are mechanically ready, tires are not broken, that they are all fueled up,” he said.

After the final checks, Cox crawled back into Fighter 41 and the convoy moved out toward the main gate. Past the main gate, each gunner in each MRAP test fired his weapon into a big, brown pit and then the convoy headed out onto the road off the base.

This day, the mission served two purposes: to get a convoy to a nearby forward operating base, and to offer the Soldiers of Fighter 41’s escort teams a taste of the job they will perform for the next nine months.

Fighter 41 held down the third position in the convoy escort team, with other MRAPs spread throughout the rest of the truck fleet, providing protection and ensuring the big trucks moved at a steady pace.

The convoy proceeded slowly, moving through a series of small villages.

As the Soldiers steered through the villages, children ran up to the MRAPS and waved or gave the thumbs up sign. Men and women barely looked twice at the familiar sight.

By the time the convoy reached its destination, it was already midday, and the initial apprehension for some of the Soldiers evaporated. 

Fighter 41’s driver, Army Pfc. Chris Soderholm, , said before the convoy left his base, he was keyed up.

“When we first left, I was shaky from excitement,” he said.

Fighter 41 is, in many ways, a microcosm of Company F, a unit that draws Guardmembers from across Oregon. The unit boasts many veterans from earlier tours to Iraq, but it also contains a lot of men and women who never deployed.

Cox, for example, spent a year in Afghanistan with the Guard, while Soderholm and Army Spc. James Rouleau, are both rookies.

For Rouleau and Soderholm, the deployment is something they wanted to experience.

“I’m excited. I’m confident in my [truck commander] and my gunner,” said Soderholm.

Rouleau’s step-brother is also in Company F. That fact, he said, pays dividends for him emotionally.

“It feels good, knowing I’ve got people I really know watching my back,” he said.

Rouleau added that the convoy trip was a little nerve-wracking.

“As a gunner, I have to be on the lookout for things that could hurt people in another truck or in my own,” he said.

While waiting to pick up a return convoy, Cox said cooperating with the people of Iraq is still important, even as the American military starts a drawdown process.

“Interacting with the population is a positive thing,” he said. “It is one of the things I wished we could do more of.”

Building a level of trust with the local people is pivotal, said Cox.

“If you are willing to talk to them, you will get a much more positive reaction,” he said.

Fighter 41’s convoy was covered by darkness by the time it made it back to Joint Base Balad.

Unlike the early years of the war, the MRAPs moved down the highway with lights on, and allowed Iraqi vehicles to pass. The convoy proceeded slowly, going through checkpoints manned by Iraqi Army Soldiers.

It was early evening by the time the convoy moved inside the gate at Joint Base Balad  and Fighter 41 suffered no attacks, no improvised explosive device ambushes, and most of the people the convoy escort team saw on the way were friendly.

The convoy was a non-event, but it proved to be a huge learning experience for the crew of Fighter 41.

“It was interesting to see how people lived in this area, and it makes you appreciate what we have stateside,” said Rouleau.

Even with the convoy safely inside the base, Cox’s work was not finished. He had a number of loose ends to wrap up, including turning in new paperwork for the incoming convoy, then the crew of Fighter 41 had to fuel up and conduct maintenance on their big vehicle.

As a veteran, Cox said he recognizes how quickly a routine mission could go wrong. He said he understands how his experience can pay off for both Soderholm and Rouleau, and other Soldiers in Company F.

“My tour in Afghanistan taught me more about life and death than I ever wanted to know,” he said.  He paused and thought for a moment. “We need to keep talking to these people as we go out [and] leave Iraq.”



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