Thursday, July 16, 2015

#TBT: Baseplate Baghdad

Editor’s note: It’s “Throwback Thursday” and you know what that means – time to dig deep into Land Line’s digital archive for some of our favorite blast-from-the-past stories. This week, we bring you a feature from the October 2004 issue, written by then-Feature Editor Jami Jones. It’s an account of life on the road for OOIDA Member Mark Taylor – who worked as a contractor in Iraq, where he drove a truck as part of a military convoy and came under fire from roadside explosives. For the full experience, you can click here and scroll down to also read a letter Mark’s wife Renee who wrote about what it was like at home during Mark’s absence.

The day starts like any other. Mark Taylor rolls out of bed, grabs a cup of coffee, maybe a bite to eat, and gets ready for another day in the truck.

He pulls on his jeans, T-shirt, boots — standard attire when on the road. He rips open the Velcro straps to adjust his body armor into place, puts on his Kevlar helmet and steps outside into another hot day in the desert of Iraq.

Driving a truck in Iraq is literally and figuratively a world away from rumbling down Interstate 80 on a cross-country run. Turning the key in the ignition and shoving the rig into gear is where the similarities end.

The convoy lines up in its military-dictated, and most importantly military-protected, formation ready to head out on the 12- to 15-hour day ahead.

Mark looks out through his windshield, which is lined with cardboard. The cardboard provides an ever-so-little bit of added protection from shattering glass in the event of an attack.

Like most truckers, Mark has taken the piece of cardboard and personalized it. He’s added an OOIDA member sticker and a picture of a very ugly puppy (because his handle is “Uglypuppy”), among other things.

Traveling though Iraq, it is critical for the drivers and gunners to watch intently for danger that lurks in more forms than can even be imagined.

The road, if you use the term loosely, runs through a country in which war and decades of neglect have taken their toll on the infrastructure.

What few paved roads still exist are riddled with road hazards such as huge potholes and damage caused by the bombing. Bridges and overpasses are in many cases impassable, if not missing altogether because they were blown up.

Guardrails that once served as some form of protection from running off the road are gone. Locals have taken them for their own personal use, for roofing or walls on their makeshift shelters.

The damage is so frequent and severe that truckers must thread their way onto temporary roads cut by the military to avoid severe damage that could be caused by the poor conditions.

Mark constantly eyes the road ahead watching for rocks and potholes, as there are no warning cones or orange barrels.

Thoroughly familiar with the laws and regulations that have ruled his life on the road in the states for years, it’s hard for Mark to adjust to the lawlessness of this third-world country. Even if there were traffic laws or speed limits, there’s no law enforcement to keep the local drivers in check.

What traffic signs are left are routinely ignored. Carts pulled by donkeys plod down the road next to big trucks. Vehicles in various states of disrepair pass by, driven by untrained adults and even children. There is no licensing or vehicle registration. In fact, just walking away from a vehicle opens it up for someone else to drive it away. Grand theft auto laws have little bearing in Iraq.

It doesn’t get much better out on the open road.

Mark always has to watch for vehicles stopped, even abandoned, in the middle of the road.

When mealtime comes, Iraqis stop on the side of the road while they prepare their food and eat it. Or an Iraqi might have decided to run into a nearby mud hut — called “Roadside 7-Elevens” by the truckers and their military escorts — for a pack of cigarettes, some booze or maybe a snack, leaving the car parked on the road rather than off to the side.

Prayer time means stopping in the middle of the road, with no thought to who or what may be coming up behind.

Iraqis who experience car trouble just leave the vehicle right where it stops and, if they have a mind to, return later with the parts and tools to begin repairs that can take days — right there on the road.

Regardless of the complications of dodging potholes the size of a Volkswagen and contending with the local rules — or lack thereof — of the road, Mark and his fellow truckers on the convoy must maintain speeds as fast as 70 mph. Stopping, or even slowing down, in the war zone is not an option.

Crossing the demilitarized zone from Kuwait into Iraq is like entering a time warp. Kuwait is a modern, clean country. Iraq looks to Mark as if it hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.

The roads are lined with hitchhikers. Unlike the states, where hitchhiking for the most part is illegal, it is a regular form of transportation in the Iraqi desert.

Stopping one truck unexpectedly is a challenge. Stopping a 70 mph convoy unexpectedly is nearly impossible.

Camels, goats and sheep can wander out onto the roads anywhere at any time. Iraq does not have fences dividing property from the highways. Herdsmen actually guide their flocks across the busy roads.

Animals are hit by convoy trucks on a daily basis. The smaller animals do only minor damage to the trucks. Hitting a camel, on the other hand, can leave a truck heavily damaged.

As if all those complications weren’t enough, there’s another one that is hard to prepare any trucker for.

Tribal leaders send children out to the roadside to beg for food and water. These children, some still toddlers, stand near the road, hoping for a handout. The handouts usually go to the tribal leader or are resold.

“As I looked out the window, I saw children in dirty, ratty clothing waving and begging,” Mark said about his first few trips into Iraq. “Many were very young like my own son, Lee, with smaller children on their hips.

“It almost seems inhumane to ignore the sad eyes, the hungry faces,” he said.

But the Americans, military and civilian, have been instructed not to throw food or water to the beggars.

“You hate to even imagine seeing a child run onto the road to grab a bottle of water that bounced back on it, unaware there is a second truck behind,” Mark said.

Adults are nearby at times, working the fields or collecting the spoils from the youngsters’ begging. Other times, children are alone in the middle of the desert. No buildings for miles — only long, lonely roads and sand.

“I think of Lee, with clean clothes, a warm bed and hot meals,” Mark said. “It is beyond comprehension that someone could be so evil as to live in grand palaces while his people are starving and how these children know nothing other than begging for their next meal.”

Horrible as it is to see children begging for food and being told not to help, Mark knows that there may be more to it than meets the eye.

The tribal leaders sometimes send children to beg along the roads, playing on the decency and the good will of the drivers, in hopes some convoy will slow or stop. To do so could give enemy combatants hiding in the desert just enough time to launch an attack. That is why assistance, food, treats — nothing — can come from the convoy.

Perhaps more ironic than being attacked when just trying to help is that the same children begging for food along the road one day can be up on an overpass the next day tossing rocks and grenades down on a passing convoy.

The intense desert heat makes the daily trek across the country challenging as well. Blown tires and batteries are a regular occurrence. Breakdowns are handled with strictly orchestrated procedures and precision. The whole convoy stops while it is determined whether the truck can be repaired.

If it cannot, the driver removes his gear and joins the driver of the bobtail truck that brings up the rear of the convoy. The trailer is dropped and picked up by the bobtail. Given an “all-clear,” the disabled truck is then destroyed by the military.

Truckers in Iraq must be vigilant, alert and ready to handle any situation. Non-convoy vehicles must be approached with caution, as the occupants could open fire at any time. If the vehicle is not occupied — it could be just as bad if not worse.

May 23 began like any day. The convoy was returning from Fallujah with its cargo of letters and packages from home for the troops. As always, the 1544th National Guard Unit out of Illinois escorted the mail trucks.

“We have become very close with the 1544th, working hand-in-hand to ensure the success of every mission,” Mark said.

Mark was driving the second truck in the convoy that day, following Paul Reed, the convoy commander. Following Mark were Kevin Tanzie, David Baker, Bill Price and Michael Smith, with Bill Remly driving the bobtail.

The truckers were warned of a vehicle parked on the side of the road. They all moved their trucks to the left as they passed by.

“I looked in my right-hand side mirror and saw the explosion,” Mark said.

An explosive device packed into the small truck parked on the side of the road exploded. The convoy’s gun truck and David Baker’s truck exploded at the same time.

“The shock wave and noise were tremendous,” Mark said. “I knew instantly it was very, very bad.”

At times like that, members of the convoy are trained to remain calm and professional. To crack under pressure could mean death to the truckers and others who depend upon them.

“The lead gun truck, the first truck driven by Paul Reed, myself and Tanzie — whose truck was behind me — drove about another kilometer before stopping,” Mark said. “We checked each other to make sure we were all intact.”

Moments later, there were more explosions.

The blasts had caught David’s truck on fire and also shattered the windshield and damaged the engine compartment of the truck driven by Bill Price.

Bill suffered a cut to the left side of his face and ear.

“I pulled out to pass David’s truck on the left-hand side, stopping in front of it,” Bill said. “My truck provided cover for the escorts, and I helped those who were wounded. The corpsman wanted to med-evac me out of the area, but I knew I had to stay.”

David’s truck and trailer were on fire. The mail from home was on fire.

“I had a job to do,” Bill said. “We had to retrieve as much mail as possible.”

Bill then backed his trailer behind David’s trailer to move the mail from the burning trailer to his trailer. David’s truck had already burned to a metal shell.

With the assistance of some of the escorts, as much mail as could be salvaged was moved to Bill’s trailer.

Meanwhile, Bill Remly met up with Mark and the others with David in the bobtail. Picking up survivors is another one of the duties of the bobtail.

“Tanzie and I applied combat first aid to David,” Mark said. “Bill (Remly) manned the radios. The 1544th was involved in a battle with insurgents and we had to do what we could to assist in securing the area and our cargo, while tending to the wounded.”

An Iraqi truck and trailer as well as two four-wheelers had been parked on the opposite side of the road from the vehicle.

“In the time after the explosions, I lost sight of the four wheelers, but the big truck had made a U-turn and was trying to escape,” Mark said. “Tanzie and I stopped the truck and detained the driver until the Marine MPs arrived.”

Mark reported to the sergeant and turned the Iraqi driver over to the Marines. He later learned that a search of the truck turned up the remote detonator.

The Army unit and Marines who had come to the aid of the convoy were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. One member of the 1544th Transportation Company, Illinois National Guard, a Marine and an Army MP were killed with others seriously injured.

“As surreal as it may be, you must go through the ‘body count’ to make sure everyone is where they are supposed to be,” Mark explained about the grim reality of working in a war zone. “But no matter what, through it all, you must remain professional and vigilant.”

“We lost a dear friend that day,” Mark said.

Spec. Jeremy Ridlen, 22, 1544th TC, Illinois National Guard, was killed in the attack. Several of the 1544th were injured and evacuated out of the area that day along with David Baker.

Afterward, the convoy began the quiet, solemn return to their home base, the Joint Military Mail Terminal at the Baghdad International Airport. They pulled in two hours later to find everyone — Kellogg, Brown & Root and the 1544th TC — waiting for their arrival.

There were hugs and handshakes. Emotions ran high. They had lost Jeremy and did not know the fate of David and the injured Marines.

“There is a bond with those you have endured combat with,” Mark said. “It is different than the bond with your family, wife and children. You trust them, literally, with your life, and they do the same.”

After debriefing, Mark called home. He knew the attack would be on the news and his wife, Renee, would see it.

“She immediately knew, from the sound of my voice, what had happened,” he said. “I needed a shower — the blood, dirt and grime was still all over me — but I needed her more. I needed to let her know I was OK. I told her to pray for Jeremy’s family and the others who were wounded.”

The next day, the convoy did not run missions. The members found out that Jeremy’s brother, who was also stationed in Iraq, would be taking him home for the final time. David and some of the others would not be released in time for the memorial service only a few days later. They were pretty beat up, but OK.

“I have gotten to know the outstanding young men of the 1544th,” Mark said. “Most of them are much younger than us, the KBR drivers. It makes me so sad to lose one of them.”

As customary when a soldier dies, a memorial is held for the military personnel. But when the announcement was made about Jeremy’s memorial, it included an invitation for the civilian truck drivers he had fought to protect.

“It was a rare occasion where the civilian workers were allowed to attend and participate in a military memorial. The colonel realized the closeness we all have toward one another,” Mark said. “For this we are thankful.”

At the memorial service, members of the group gave Jeremy’s brother more than $1,000 collected from the drivers to help with expenses.

Strength and determination are critical. Truckers must go from the horrors of the attack, like the one that took Jeremy’s life, on to the next mission.

The day starts like any other. Mark Taylor rolls out of bed, grabs a cup of coffee, maybe a bite to eat, and gets ready for another day in the truck.