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Safe Passage

The 497th Transportation Company’s adaptability was tested when it deployed to Iraq with a new mission—convoy security escort.

What does it take to transform wheeled vehicle operators with military occupational specialty 88M into convoy security escorts? Ask the warrior-transporters of the 497th Transportation Company, 57th Transportation Battalion, at Fort Lewis, Washington. While deployed to Baghdad in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II as part of Logistics Task Force 264 (Airborne) from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the 497th found its niche as a dedicated combat security escort.

The mission of the 497th was to provide convoy security to Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) line-haulers from the Multinational Corps-Iraq (MNC–I) Joint Military Mail Terminal in order to get letters and care packages to the Soldiers of Task Force Baghdad. The 497th completed hundreds of convoy security and gun truck missions and traveled thousands of miles on Iraq’s roughest and most notorious roads.


Deployment Order


In late April 2004, the 497th Transportation Company received orders to deploy to Iraq as a provisional gun truck company. The company would be headquartered in An Najaf, approximately 100 miles southwest of Baghdad. Intelligence indicated that the region lacked the basic conveniences, such as buildings, phones, and Internet service. Expecting a desolate and isolated camp, the company prepared to take all of the items on its modification table of organization and equipment with it. The light-medium truck company also had a limited supply of crew-served weapons and communications equipment. Within 2 weeks of receiving the deployment order, the company shipped its equipment and vehicles from the Port of Olympia, Washington.

The company’s dramatic shift in mission required a change not only in weaponry and communications but also in training. However, preparing its equipment for deployment left the 497th little time to train for its new mission.

Training Center Rotations

In the months preceding the deployment order, the company had completed training rotations at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, and the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Both rotations were conducted as part of an echelons-above-brigade package supporting the 1st Brigade (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), 25th Infantry Division (Light) (1/25 SBCT), at Fort Lewis, Washington.

The focus of these training rotations was primarily on hauling water and classes I (subsistence), IIIB (bulk petroleum), IV (construction materials), and V (ammunition) to the brigade’s forward operating bases. The training center scenarios provided a realistic look at the possible operating environment in Iraq but did not address the 497th’s convoy security mission. Each time the unit was tasked to support the brigade during the training center rotations, it had to wait for escorts to protect it. Strykers or any available armored vehicles were used as escort vehicles. This training did not give the unit an opportunity to hone its convoy security or convoy command and control skills.

Deployment Preparations


When the 497th returned to Fort Lewis in April 2004, just over a month remained before the unit had to be in theater. It had no time to react to the change in mission. Instead, the company’s time was devoted solely to completing predeployment tasks and preparing Soldiers and their families for the upcoming year.

By the second week of June, the 497th Soldiers had completed all of their required training and were preparing for block leave. However, they received word that their deployment had been pushed forward to 16 June—weeks earlier than expected. Their expected 30-day block-leave period was compressed into the 5 days preceding the departure of personnel.

Mission Preparations

The 497th Transportation Company arrived at Camp Beuhring, Kuwait, in June. During the first week, the unit received several briefings on the threats it would face once it moved north to Iraq. It also learned that it would be reorganizing under a new battalion and would be operating out of Al Taji, approximately 15 miles north of Baghdad, instead of An Najaf. While in Kuwait, the unit leaders assessed mission readiness and took steps to bolster the unit’s effectiveness on the roads of Iraq.


One of the most prevalent threats faced by Soldiers in Iraq is the detonation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along the main supply routes. Units conducting convoy operations on the roads of Iraq counter the threat of IEDs by welding armor to the exterior of their vehicles. While in Kuwait, the 497th tapped the talents of its Soldiers and found competent welders to armor the doors of all vehicles with ballistic steel. The company also received add-on armor kits, which included ballistic doors and windows, for all of the company’s M998 high-mobility, multipurpose, wheeled vehicles (humvees).

Once the vehicles were uparmored, the company began mounting crew-served weapons on M923 5-ton cargo trucks to give them fire superiority when facing the enemy and enable them to withstand myriad threats and provide reliable security to convoys. To achieve this, the 497th’s Soldiers mounted three-post ring mounts to their vehicles.

The company still lacked assets that were critical to mission success. It had seven up-armored humvees and five ring-mounted gun trucks but only eight crew-served weapons and five weapon mounts. This was enough equipment to provide security for only one convoy mission at a time. To increase the company’s complement of weapon mounts and armor, a team of resourceful Soldiers searched throughout Kuwait for equipment left by redeploying units. However, the company was unable to obtain more crew-served weapons, so it maximized its use of the M249 squad automatic weapons it had brought from Fort Lewis.

Communication was another issue that had to be addressed. As a light-medium truck company, the 497th did not have FM radios for every vehicle. It could provide radios only for the convoy command and control element, lead vehicle, and trail vehicle. The company also had five Movement Tracking System (MTS) mobile units for its humvees and two MTS control stations for its operations platoon. Since the enemy was capable of attacking at any point of the convoy, every vehicle would need communication capability, so more radios were needed. The company quickly augmented its FM capability with Icom F60 squad radios and obtained MTS mobile units to install in the M923 gun trucks. MTS proved to be a reliable asset for convoy commanders and provided the company with visibility of its assets.

Maintenance

It soon became apparent that keeping a gun truck company rolling was a much more daunting task than maintaining a transportation company. The 17-Soldier maintenance platoon had to perform diverse tasks, ranging from vehicle maintenance and recovery to welding.

Maintaining a fleet of M923 trucks was a 24-hour-a-day task. Many of the Soldiers were younger than the average age of the trucks in the fleet. The age of the fleet necessitated special attention from the company’s maintainers and operators. A premission quality assurance and inspection program was developed and incorporated into the convoy commander’s responsibilities. Every time a vehicle left the gate, it was inspected at the technical manual –10 level by the operator and at the –20 level by unit maintenance personnel. This gave the Soldiers greater confidence in their vehicles than they had when only preventive maintenance checks and services were performed. Throughout their deployment, the maintainers of the 497th completed over 1,800 quality assurance/quality control inspections, and no missions were dropped because of mechanical failure.

Convoy Image

Operating safely in the Iraqi theater required the company to present a tough-as-nails appearance at all times. The Soldiers quickly learned that the deadlier they made their convoys look, the less likely they were to meet with enemy interdiction. A constant mission tempo allowed the company leaders to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures to counter enemy attacks effectively.

Rolling heavy with a mix of crew-served weapons, such as the M240B machinegun, M2 machinegun, and MK19 machine grenade launcher, provided the diversity needed to deal with whatever threat the convoy encountered. Midway through the deployment, the company received a complement of M1114 up-armored humvees. These were quickly incorporated into the mission cycle, giving the convoy commanders excellent defensive capabilities. The M1114 had improved armor, additional weapon systems, and communications equipment. Unlike the M923 gun trucks, which were manned with a driver, relief driver, gunner, and assistant gunner, only three Soldiers were required to operate the M1114s.

Although the M1114s were faster, they lacked the intimidation factor that the M923 trucks had. Thus, convoy commanders preferred to have an M923 in the lead because of its ability to power through almost anything it encountered. Company leaders instituted security escort procedures that were based on the environment the
convoy would traverse. If the convoy was heading to an urban environment, such as Baghdad proper, a 50–50 mix of M1114s and M923s was used. Convoys with only M1114s were used for long-haul or rural convoys.

The company’s maintenance platoon found different challenges with the new M1114s. The vehicles had temperamental transmissions, and repair parts were scarce. Therefore, the company leaders restricted the use of these vehicles to mission-related trips only. Since even minor damage could put the M1114s out of commission for weeks, they were sacrosanct.

When the 497th received the mission to move from Al Taji to Camp Striker at Baghdad International Airport and become the dedicated security escort for the Joint Military Mail Terminal, they were in for a wild ride. They had to overcome many obstacles to complete their mission successfully. However, many of KBR’s drivers who provided line-haul support for the terminal were entering their second year in Iraq and had thousands of miles of experience on some of the country’s toughest roads. They accepted the “new guys” of the 497th Transportation Company with open arms, making the transition easier. Together, they delivered the most morale-boosting commodity in theater—Soldiers’ mail.
ALOG

First Lieutenant Cecilia R. Motschenbacher is a platoon leader with the 497th Transportation Company, 57th Transportation Battalion, at Fort Lewis, Washington, and recently redeployed from Baghdad, Iraq. She has a B.A. degree in education from Pacific Lutheran University in Washington and is a graduate of Officer Candidate School and the Transportation Officer Basic Course.