War on Terrorism

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Iraq: Short haul, long night for Minnesota Guard's "Drifters"

By Army National Guard Spc. Bob Brown
1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Red Bull Infantry Division

IRAQ  – The 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armor's Delta Company are nicknamed the "Drifters," a fitting title considering the unit's role as a Convoy Security Team, or CST, in the drawdown of American forces in the slowing Iraq War.

As the number of troops in Iraq dwindles, so does the amount of equipment that has played a part in sustaining nearly a decade's worth of war.

The Drifters and other companies throughout the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division earn their keep by providing convoy route security for both military and civilian trucks as they navigate the still dangerous roads of Iraq.

The convoys leaving Kuwait typically include empty flatbed trailers that are loaded with equipment once they arrive in Iraq.

Before a convoy can leave Kuwait, there is a laundry list of things to do. First, the Drifter's Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, vehicles that are tasked with providing security, must ensure all of their radio and communication equipment is functional.

Checking this equipment provides the Drifters with the ability to communicate with other MRAPs on their convoy.

After those checks are complete, the civilian truck drivers are briefed on the mission and what is expected of them on that night's convoy.

In order to bridge the language gap, the truck commander will go through a series of large posters written in both Arabic and English.

Following the briefs, drivers and Soldiers board their vehicles and depart for Iraq.

The first stop is the border checkpoint known as "K-Crossing." Upon arriving at K-Crossing, the MRAPs are topped off with fuel and staged for the drive north.

As the CST for this particular convoy, their mission is to ensure that the route to Camp Adder is free of threats. Typically they are looking for hidden explosives on the side of the road and suspicious vehicles that might be carrying insurgents.

The Drifters move slowly and meticulously up the Iraqi highway using high powered lights to scan the side of the road for anything unusual, whether it is a rock that appears out of place or an unnatural part of the landscape that could be hiding an explosive device.

The CSTs travel through areas that have seen previous threats. The driver, Army Pfc. Adam Erb, a tanker from Minneapolis, Minn., keeps the speed down to provide the truck commander, Army Staff Sgt. Scott Whittemore, a tanker from Pequot Lakes, Minn., a clear view of the road.

The same can be said for gunner Army Sgt. Chad Swenson, another tanker, from Elk River, Minn. Swenson pokes out of the top of the truck's turret and scans the road with sophisticated optics mounted to his machine gun.

In addition to darkness, Swenson must also deal the elements of the harsh Iraqi desert.

"It is hot in the summer, but don't ever let anyone tell you the desert isn't cold!" He said after temperatures dropped to 39 degrees Fahrenheit.

While this group of Drifters is well focused on the mission at hand, they also keep the mood as light as possible. It is not uncommon to hear laughter mixed in with some of the chatter going on over the vehicle's intercom radio system.

Three hours out of K-Crossing seemed like just as good a time as any to pullover and get a count on the semi-trucks in the convoy. It is common for the truck drivers to make wrong turns and occasionally break down, making it imperative to account for all vehicles on the convoy.

Swenson counts aloud over the radio from his gunner's hatch so Whittemore is assured every vehicle is where it is supposed to be. If a truck does fall out of the convoy, it may be up to one of the Drifters to go track it down, making for an even longer night.

Fortunately all of the trucks were accounted for and after a short break the Drifters were ready to make the final push to Camp Adder.

For Whittemore, commanding a CST takes on a form of art. "Clearing the route for other vehicles to follow really paints the picture for the entire convoy," he said. "I can do whatever I feel is necessary to ensure the security of the convoy behind us."

After nearly six hours on the road the sun begins to rise in southern Iraq. The Drifters roll through gate at Camp Adder with everyone on the convoy safe and accounted for.

From here the Drifters will fuel up their vehicles and grab some breakfast chow before heading to cramped transient housing for some well-deserved sleep. It is now 9 o'clock in the morning.

When the Drifters wake, they will start the process all over again – only this time they will be heading south to Kuwait to await orders for their next mission.

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