War on Terrorism

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Airman Brings Personal Touch to MRAP

By Air Force Senior Airman Jarrod Chavana
Air Component Coordination Element

April 13, 2010 - A mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle towers to nearly the height of an 18-wheeler. Weighing in at more than 20 tons each, MRAPs are designed to survive blasts from roadside bombs and small-arms fire. They can transport airmen, Marines, soldiers and sailors in and out of the battlefield, without hesitation and at amazing speed.

The gunner and the driver are in sync as they relay commands to each other via internal communication systems.

Behind the wheel is Air Force Senior Airman Kayla Manning, from Detachment 2 of the 732nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron. Before missions, she almost doubles her weight when she dons her battle gear.

While climbing into this life-saving vehicle, Manning has to place one knee on the MRAP's steps to hoist her weight upward to climb into the vehicle. But despite a stature of just over 5 feet 2 inches, she possesses the power, control and confidence of someone twice her size.

"This is my Big Bertha," said Manning, who is deployed from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. "Before arriving in Iraq, we were trained on smaller vehicles. Once we arrived here, I was assigned to drive this big beast. Believe it or not, I drive better in this vehicle than the smaller ones."

Since Manning is in control of the vehicle and its occupants, she decided to add a few personal touches of her own.

"My favorite color is pink, so I tried to put in a pink steering wheel cover, but it wouldn't fit", she said. "So I sewed some pink fabric to the steering wheel."

And, the mother of one of Manning's teammates sent a pink-painted gear shift knob.

Those unconventional touches haven't gone unnoticed. "Sometimes the guys tease me -- 'We can't drive around with all this pink in the truck,'" she said. "Then I have to tell them, 'It's OK. It is my truck.'"

Air Force Senior Airman James Matthews, a gunner deployed from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., said Manning is quite clear about her "my house, my rules" attitude. "It fits," he said, "because she takes great care of the truck."

She may get picked on about her pink steering wheel, but when it comes to a mission, Manning is all business.

"Once you get into the MRAP and you're ready to go out, you have to get into a proper mindset," the San Diego native said. "That's probably the last thing I do before I drive outside the gates. I pray not only to come home safe, but also to be aware and for my family in case something was to happen."

Being attacked isn't her biggest fear, she said. The possibility of making a mistake and hurting those inside the vehicle is what scares her.

"I've been here since December 2009, and we've done at least two to three missions per week since we got here," Manning said. "I'm at the point where I know the roads and where it dips, so I know what to do and where. Some roads, you hope and pray you don't roll over. That's my biggest concern. I follow the soccer mom rule: I tend to be more worried of hurting those inside than myself. If someone gets hurt because I rolled it, I would feel horrible. I'm very protective over my guys."

One of the biggest dynamics within the vehicle is the communication between the gunner, who scans from the turret, and the driver, who scans the roads while driving.

"The gunner/driver relationship is the most communication two people will ever have," Manning said. "Because what the gunner sees, I need to see, and what I see, he needs to see. You need to be each other's eyes. They can see things further out that I can't see, and I can see things closer to the ground that they can't see."

Her truck mates admitted they may have had doubts at first about Manning being their driver.

"She isn't what I expected," said Matthews, a native of Slidell, La. "I thought she would be frail and timid, and I didn't think she would be able to handle this type of machine. Now, I think she is one of the best drivers in the fleet."

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