CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq – Late Friday night, a convoy of supply trucks from the Keene-based 220th Transportation Company rumbled through the Iraq desert on the way back to its base near Tikrit.

By Saturday afternoon, dozens of soldiers from the unit were at work, changing flat tires, checking fluids and brakes and preparing trucks and trailers for another round of missions hauling supplies and vehicles to military bases throughout Iraq.

Transportation is a nonstop operation for the 168 members of the Army Reserve unit that arrived in Iraq July 1. Groups leave nearly every day, driving for hours or even days to their destinations, to turn around and do it again.

“The workload has really started to pick up,” said company commander Capt. Adam D. Ziegner of Newfane, Vt., as he strolled through the walled compound that houses the unit’s headquarters at Speicher.

“It dropped off for a while, but we’ve started to get more missions.”

Ziegner points to a large white board hanging on the door outside the building.

“216,108 accident-free miles,” he reads. “That says something about the soldiers in this unit.”

The unit has been recognized by other Army companies in Iraq for its safety record on roads filled with hazards that go beyond the constant threat of attacks by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, Ziegner said.

“The roads are really horrendous,” Ziegner said. “Potholes, narrow checkpoints that are difficult to get through, unpredictable civilian drivers, sandstorms.

“You name it, these guys have seen it.”

No convoys from the unit have been attacked or hit IEDs, Ziegner said, adding that the threat is never far from the minds of the drivers and leaders of the unit.

The unit operates both standard tractor-trailers, known as 915s, and Heavy Equipment Transporter Systems, also called HETS.

The towering trucks are much larger and pull specially-designed 40-wheel trailers meant to haul tanks and other large military machinery, including heavily armored Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs.

The unit learned late last year that operating HETS convoys would be part of its mission, requiring more training in the U.S. before coming here, Ziegner said.

During the four-month training timetable at bases across the U.S., the ranks swelled nearly threefold — from about 60 soldiers to almost 170.

Most of the unit’s members come from Northeastern states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. Others hail from California, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

After a month at Fort Devens in Massachusetts last winter and a month at Fort Riley, Kan., in the spring, 117 soldiers were certified to drive the HETS.

“By that point,” Ziegner said, “my goal was to synergize the company, and by that I mean bring together people from 12 different states and five different companies to have a common point, a common culture.”

Ziegner credits the extended training period with helping the members of the unit bond and allowing soldiers time to build relationships with each other that would support them during their time overseas.

He focuses on encouraging positive leadership and emphasizing the importance of safety.

And as the unit enters the second half of its deployment, leaders are reminding soldiers more than ever to be vigilant and aware of safety risks.

“They say it’s 30 days and 30 days,” said Sgt. First Class Tomas Perez-Perez of New York, who leads the unit’s Second Platoon. “In the first 30 days, you’re new, you’re just learning and a lot of mistakes can be made.

“During the last 30 days, you can get complacent and lose focus and that’s when bad stuff can happen.”

When the soldiers arrived in Iraq July 1, daytime temperatures soared past 120 degrees and acclimating to their new environment took time.

These days, temperatures hit the mid-70s during the day and a dusty yellow haze clings to the horizon.

Speicher, the unit’s base in Iraq, is located about 90 miles northwest of Baghdad and was formerly an Iraqi airfield called Al Sahra.

It lies in a broad, flat expanse of yellow desert near the Iraqi town of Tikrit, a few miles from the banks of the Tigris River.

Most soldiers in the unit live less than a mile from the unit’s headquarters building in containerized housing units, better known as CHUs in military parlance. The rows of units, which house two or three soldiers each, are protected by sand-filled containers called HESCOs.

While mortar attacks are uncommon, an explosion from indirect fire was reported on the base last week.

The base also has an airfield, a large dining hall, two gyms and a post exchange, which carries everything from toothpaste and bed linens to food and televisions.

The northern side of the base, where the unit’s headquarters is housed, is known as the historic district and is made up by former Iraqi barracks. A crumbling former soccer stadium is now used for frequent concerts by American musicians visiting the base. Early this month country star Trace Adkins performed.

On Saturday evening, as members of the unit wrapped up their preparation for their next convoy, a brilliant pink and purple sunset — a common sight caused by the dusty air — brightened the monochromatic landscape.

Casey Farrar can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or cfarrar@keenesentinel.com.