CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq – Silhouetted in rows of glaring headlights, soldiers dart back and forth between trucks.
It’s early; just past 6 a.m. Friday.
For now the air feels cold to bodies accustomed to triple-digit temperatures, but in a few hours, the sun will heat the chilly desert.
By then, they’ll be in a convoy of more than 40 trucks on the way to Balad Airbase, about 100 miles south.
The 220th Transportation Company, a Keene-based Army Reserve unit, deployed in July to Iraq. Its mission is to haul supplies and military vehicles throughout the northern half of the country.
The unit is among about 50,000 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq since the September launch of “Operation New Dawn.” But while combat operations have officially ended, risks remain for the troops here.
Early in its deployment, the 220th ran most of its convoys at night, when civilians under curfew were off the roads.
But now, to reduce the risk posed by a routine, they leave at various times throughout the day. Details of each mission are kept under wraps until the last minute to lower the risk of attacks.
Since arriving here about four months ago, none of the unit’s vehicles has been hit by improvised explosive devices, according to its commander, Capt. Adam Ziegner of Newfane, Vt. While soldiers in the unit have seen small explosions hitting other vehicles, such as security vehicles and tractor-trailer trucks driven by civilian contractors, no injuries have been reported.
With the order, shouted over the growl of dozens of warming engines, the soldiers climb into their trucks.
They’ll wait at least another hour at the nearby staging lanes where they’ll meet up with trucks that will provide security during the convoy, as well as civilian contractor-owned trucks.
While they wait, Staff Sgt. Kwesi K. King of New York City walks through the rows checking in with drivers. As convoy commander, it’s Kings’s job to make sure that the operation runs smoothly from start to finish.
“I try not to get too stressed out about it,” he said. “I pretty much know what needs to be done by now and I just want to make sure everyone gets back safely.”
Meanwhile, Spc. Ben Jones of Saegertown, Penn., goes from truck to truck, making sure the radios they use to communicate are working.
Jones, a signal support system specialist, does this for nearly all of the 220th’s convoys.
“I like to say I’m on every mission because I’m out here almost every day checking to make sure that the communication is working before they leave,” he said.
This mission will take two days, with the convoy set to arrive Friday afternoon at Balad. Trucks will be unloaded, and some will get new loads to be taken back to Speicher when the convoy heads back Saturday.
The volume of missions for the 220th has picked up in recent weeks, according to Ziegner, as demand for its fleet of heavy equipment transporter systems (HETS) has grown.
The massive trucks pull 40-wheel trailers designed to haul tanks and large military vehicles.
The unit is unique because it’s a hybrid, meaning its soldiers are trained to drive the HETS and tractor-trailer trucks, said Lt. Col. John P. Holzapfel of the Nebraska-based 394th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion.
The battalion is charged with sustaining U.S. military operations in northern Iraq and moving out equipment no longer needed as troop numbers drop.
“Having the flexibility to use different types of trucks is really critical,” Holzapfel said in an interview Wednesday. “It increases the flexibility of what we’re able to do and I think it’s something that really may take off.”
The first security truck, also called a gun truck, rolls out the gates of Contingency Operating Base Speicher at 9 a.m.
Behind it, a handful of security trucks, about three-dozen trucks from the 220th Transportation Company and several civilian contractor-owned trucks are making their way onto the highway.
The convoy will stretch for miles along the four-lane divided highway.
While there are no longer the travel restrictions on vehicles driven by Iraqi civilians that were in place early in the war, most drivers still move into the oncoming lanes of traffic to avoid the large convoy.
It snakes its way through the outskirts of Tikrit, passing mud-brick buildings that blend into the yellow-brown landscape.
Driving a “bob-tailed” HETS, or a truck with no trailer on it that provides backup if a truck breaks down, near the middle of the convoy is Staff Sgt. Robert Short of North Andover, Mass. His wife, Staff Sgt. Bobbie Short, rides in the passenger seat and mans the truck’s radio.
The two, who both had lengthy military careers before becoming reservists, met early in the war while they were deployed to Kuwait with different units.
Robert Short’s unit specialized in driving HETS and the work took him on convoy missions all across Iraq, making him one of the most experienced HETS drivers in the unit.
For Bobbie Short, who previously served in a finance unit and learned to drive a HETS from her husband, this is her first convoy since arriving in Iraq. Her administrative experience led to a position in the 220th’s headquarters office that has kept her on the base.
A few miles into the drive, the convoy reaches a checkpoint. Convoys are rarely stopped at the checkpoints, but the narrow barriers set up to slow traffic often lead to popped tires for the lumbering HETS.
“There’re almost always a few popped tires,” says Robert Short.
Passing beyond the limits of Tikrit, the convoy goes through checkpoints every few miles. The landscape opens into a sprawling desert, broken up by scattered roadside shops, restaurants and bazaars.
Several buildings are under construction and parts of the road are closed for paving. The rate of building in the area has caught the attention of several soldiers in the 220th.
“It’s good to see rebuilding, in my opinion, because it means that they think things are getting better,” said Sgt. First Class Roger H. Safford of Marlboro, Vt., in an interview last week. “They wouldn’t put in the investment if they thought it wasn’t going to last.”
Nearing the half-way point of the trip, the convoy passes into the fertile land of the Tigris River basin, where green plants sprout in acres of farmland along the road. Patches of palm trees stand in the distance and grapevines hang heavily from rows of trellises.
Shortly after the convoy crosses the bridge over the Tigris it turns onto a narrow two-lane road that will take it to Balad. Children run from the fields near the road and wave up at the massive trucks and the soldiers within.
While they take in the sights outside the trucks, the soldiers remain aware of the risks.
In places where the highway hasn’t been repaved, scars in the asphalt patched with concrete are a constant reminder of the threat of explosions.
The soldiers keep their eyes peeled for wires or other suspicious items that could be mixed in with trash near the road.
When they arrive safely at Balad about three hours later, the trucks go to a yard for unloading. Most of the vehicles they carried are Kuwait-bound.
Some of the 220th’s trucks are reloaded with supplies and vehicles destined for Speicher, and the drivers are put up for the night in rooms designated for convoys passing through.
The convoy hits the road mid-morning on Saturday.
Retracing its path to Speicher, it is delayed a couple times; once by a flat tire and once to pull off and to let another convoy pass.
When the convoy reaches the base shortly after 3 p.m., the cargo is unloaded. In a couple days it will likely be loaded back onto the trucks and headed somewhere else in Iraq.
For the soldiers in this transportation company, it’s all in a day’s work.