November 26, 2012
Wisconsin National Guard Public Affairs
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep." - Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
It's not too likely that the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 1157th Transportation Company made many intentional scenic stops while conducting convoy escort missions for the past several months in Afghanistan, but the men and women of the Oshkosh-based unit has kept their commander's promise to meet or exceed expectations, and it has logged tens of thousands of miles in doing so.
While the mission allows 1157th Soldiers to see parts of Afghanistan that others do not, those missions are not without challenges. The missions range from one or two days to a few weeks in length. Common obstacles include poorly maintained roads requiring improvised detours and slower convoy speeds, dense civilian traffic and frequent vehicle breakdowns with the National Afghan Truckers (NATs). There is also the very real danger of encountering armed insurgents along the way.
"It is not uncommon for Afghani motorists to weave in and out of traffic at high rates of speed, often traveling for long periods of time in the wrong lane or off-road," said Sgt. 1st Class Dominic Renteria, a platoon sergeant with the 1157th. "Traffic lights are virtually non-existent, and many heavily trafficked areas rely on traffic police."
Renteria said that in gridlock-plagued Kabul, pedestrians rule the streets. However, NAT vehicle breakdowns top the list of convoy complications to avoid. Heavy payloads, extensive mileage and insufficient maintenance take their toll on the civilian semi-tractors, and frequent mechanical breakdowns result.
"Soldiers cringe as the radio relays the message, 'Convoy commander, please halt the convoy - we have a NAT broken down and pulling off to the side of the road,'" Renteria said. Such delays can last from 10 minutes to hours, increasing the risk of fatigue as well as enemy attack.
"I hate when the NATs have a long breakdown - it makes me feel like a sitting duck at times," said Staff Sgt. Melissa Jeske of Newton, Wis., a convoy commander. "I do take comfort in knowing that my Soldiers are ready and prepared to deal with anyone who wants to mess with a sitting duck."
This statement was validated in June, when one 1157th convoy endured a small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade attack. In an instant, 1157th gunners returned fire and suppressed the insurgent advance. Within moments, the attack was over. Thanks to the convoy's tactical preparation, the vehicles suffered only minor damage - and while one Afghani truck driver sustained minor shrapnel wounds to his feet, no other injuries were reported.
"That was a rough day, but I think we proved to ourselves that we were prepared to handle whatever was thrown our way," said Staff Sgt. Nathan Roth of Appleton, Wis., who has led 40 missions across Afghanistan and commanded that particular convoy. Many of his Soldiers have earned the Army Combat Action Badge on this deployment.
In spite of the dangers, Soldiers welcome the opportunity to go on mission as doing so seems to make the deployment go by faster. Each Forward Operating Base contains its own bazaar of local vendors - a popular destination for road warriors seeking mementos of their journey.
"I am doing all my Christmas shopping at the bazaar this year," said 1st Lt. Nathan Wilhelms of Neenah, Wis. "I hope everyone back home likes decorative scarves and Afghani pottery."
With Thanksgiving over and Christmas approaching, many in the 1157th are reminded of home.
"Being here for Thanksgiving really put into perspective what I am thankful for back home," said Sgt. Susan Delaney.
Trying to recreate a sense of home, Delaney and her platoon prepared a Thanksgiving dinner at the barracks, using only a crockpot and microwave oven. The food was delivered courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service, and included turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, apple pie and sparkling grape juice.
"This was such a morale booster for the platoon when it was obvious we were all missing home," said Sgt. Tiffany Gorges of Oshkosh, Wis. "This year, I am thankful for being part of a platoon that makes the best out of every situation."