September 24, 2007

Interupted by war

By Joan Tupponce
Courtesy of Challenge Magazine

Trucker Rick “Poncho” Wynne can’t forget the 1173rd Transportation Company of the Virginia Army National Guard. “I followed these guys into the gates of hell and they brought me out,” Wynne comments. “I will owe these guys for the rest of my life.”

Wynne, who was a civilian truck driver with KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, was often escorted by the 1173rd during their time in Iraq. The memories that he tries to push aside are memories that also haunt Captains Mike Waterman and Jeff Beck and Staff Sergeant Kevin Hubbard of the 1173rd. All are back at work now in their civilian jobs, living their daily lives. But the images, the sounds and the lives lost in that Middle East hotbed can never be erased from the tape that runs through their minds.

It was December 2004 when Waterman, Beck and Hubbard deployed to Iraq with the 1173rd. Waterman served as company commander; Beck, executive and operations officer. Hubbard first served as truck master and then convoy commander. The three learned of the company’s activation in October 2004.

“We weren’t really surprised,” recalls Waterman. “A lot of transportation companies were being called up. Our company was about half strength. We had to get truck drivers from all over the state and assign them to our unit so we would have a full company.”

The company’s mission was up in the air. When the 1173rd left for the war on December 30, 2004, troop members thought they would be transporting equipment and cargo. But when they landed in Iraq they were told they would be a convoy security company, escorting civilian contractors who were transporting supplies.

The make-shift company consisted of male and female troops ranging in age from 18 to 52. Many were college students from Southwest Virginia who had joined for the educational benefits that the military provides. Others were pulled from various occupations, everything from policeman and engineer to electrician and truck driver.

“Leaving our lives and our families for a year wasn’t easy,” Waterman says. “But everyone accepted what we would be doing for the next year and pulled together well.”

Waterman had envisioned living in the desert but the troops found themselves in trailers inside the largest logistical base in the country. Even so, many members of the company were apprehensive about the deployment. “I don’t think we were prepared for the amount of work and the focus it would take to do the job,” Waterman says, noting that the company spent two weeks training with the unit that was leaving.

The base where the company was stationed was well established. There was a Military Exchange Store (PX), and even a Burger King and a Pizza Hut. But it wasn’t anything like home. “There’s a certain level of comfort,” Beck says, “but you temper that with mortar rounds coming in twice a day and the constant level of threat all around you.”

Wynne had arrived in Iraq in June, 2004. A member of the Spokane Indian Tribe in Washington, Wynne had been driving a route that included Washington, Idaho and Montana. He approached KBR about work in Iraq partly because of finances and partly because of patriotism. “I had respect for the kids going over there and the military,” Wynne explains. “I honestly thought I would go over there to help them. A lot of drivers are patriotic. You can sort out the ones that really support the military.”

A former member of the military, Wynne didn’t realize how many civilian truck drivers he would encounter in Iraq. “I was in awe of how many there were,” he recalls. “We were escorted by different units. We took supplies north, south, east and west.”

The work was nerve-racking. Drivers encountered everything from roadside bombs to insurgents throwing bricks and rocks at their vehicles. “It got to a point where we could predict what night of the week and where we would get hit,” Wynne says. “It was that much of a routine with them. When we first got there we ran in the daylight but then they switched us to nights when there was less traffic and less civilians.”

Wynne and several of the civilian drivers ran with the 1173rd after the company began its duty in Iraq. “It would be a relief when we looked on the mission log and saw we were going with the 1173rd,” Wynne says. “We knew that they knew what they would do [if something happened].”

Stationed in the middle of Iraq, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, the 1173rd averaged three to four escort missions daily. “We touched about every base in Iraq,” recalls Waterman. “At first it was pretty quiet. Historically at that time there wasn’t a lot of insurgent activity in the winter.”

Beck may not remember every convoy he escorted but he does remember the faces that stared back at the troops as the convoy plowed down the road. “They were wondering what your next move was and you were wondering what they would do next,” he comments. “We always wondered if the people we were passing were a threat. There is no clear way to distinguish that this is a threat or this is not a threat. That makes it a stressful situation.”

The company’s largest threat came from improvised explosive devices (IED’s), which could be detonated, by remote control or trip wire. “IEDs are almost impossible to spot. When they go off it stops the convoy so they can come out and attack,” Waterman explains. “Most of the time we were moving as fast as we could, sometimes 60 miles an hour. For the most part, you don’t see them coming. You hope when they do go off it won’t be so bad.”

Troops relied on their M1114 heavily armored High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV/Humvee) for protection. “Before we left for Iraq we had heard a lot of stuff about the armor on the trucks and how it didn’t work,” Hubbard says. “But we saw many trucks get hit and burn to the ground. We saw soldiers walk out of them and get into another transport back.”

Waterman says he was thankful that the company was using the HMMWV/Humvees. “When an IED did go off, we would hit the gas pedal harder and drive through it. We would practice the things to do if the vehicle got hit, but we prayed that we wouldn’t get hit.”
The 1173rd was always aware that the civilian drivers were their responsibility. “They were great,” Hubbard says. “When they went out, they had their own convoy commander assigned to that run. I would speak directly to the commander. They would do everything you asked them to do.”

Most of the convoys consisted of about 30 vehicles – five gun trucks and 10 to 20 18-wheelers. Wynne will never forget one mission when an attack in the village of Ad Duluiyah claimed the lives of three drivers. During the ambush, the convoy was overtaken by more than 100 insurgents. Three KBR drivers were killed. “It was on a small road with buildings on both sides,” Waterman recalls. “There wasn’t a lot of mobility. The insurgents were shooting from the windows, walls and roofs.”

Wynne was at the back of the convoy. “The 1173rd went above and beyond during that ambush,” he says with firm resolve. “They had the brains to know what to do and what we should do. We did exactly what they said and we came out pretty much unscratched.”

The ambush made headlines on ABC News when one of the civilian drivers claimed the convoy was abandoned during the attack. An investigation of the event found that the 1173rd reacted properly. The soldiers were later decorated for their actions.

“As hard as the [soldiers in the] back of that escort unit fought, if it wasn’t for them, none of us would have gotten out,” Wynne maintains. “It’s damn sad that three drivers got killed. They were really good drivers. But if it wasn’t for the wits of the convoy, nobody would have come out. I can’t say thank you enough to the 1173rd.”

After that type of ambush, the wounded were usually taken to a base hospital by helicopter. Beck was there when troops were brought in. “Even though you are not out there with them you see their faces when they come off the helicopters,” he says. “You are with them then. It helps them to know you will be there, on their side.”

Wynne had picked up on the 1173rd’s attitude – it’s not about me; it’s about the guy next to me. “They really honestly worried about us and took care of us,” Wynne says.

The troops relied on each other for support. “The most challenging thing for me personally was worrying about the guys who would go out every day,” Waterman reveals. “I worried about what they were going through. It was my responsibility to bring them home. The hardest part was when they did get hit and they were having to deal with that. You look at them as if they are your kids.”

Members of the 1173rd looked to their faith to help guide them through the troubling times. Often, they held weekly bible studies. “People would say prayers before going out on a mission,” Beck recalls. “It helps you calm down. A lot of people gravitated toward that. It helped keep us together.”

There were times when the realities of the war became numbing. Hubbard is still haunted by the loss of Army Sgt. James Witkowski from Surprise, Arizona, who was killed by an IED. Witkowski’s National Guard unit from California had been attached to the 1173rd for six months. Hubbard was his squad leader. “You tell yourself you will make sure you will bring everybody home and I wasn’t able to do that,” Hubbard says softly. “I remember that he won’t make it home to his family.”

Waterman won’t forget either. “When he (Witkowski) was killed, it was hard, like a member of your family,” he says. “The next day you have to go back to work. You don’t feel like you have the time you need to mourn. Having to write the letter home to his parents was one of the hardest things I had to do.”


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