By Sgt. 1st Class Rhonda M. Lawson
JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq – Four a.m. comes quickly and early June 18.
Staff Sgt. Michael Paulk slowly opens his eyes. He wishes for more sleep, but that wish won’t come true today. He has only 45 minutes to get dressed and make it to the motor pool to prepare for the day’s convoy mission.
The mission brief was given the night before, so all that is left to do is perform preventive maintenance checks and services on the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles that will provide security to civilian trucks delivering supplies to another base.
Paulk, a vehicle commander with F Company, 199th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and a Deville, La., native, will fill in as the vehicle’s gunner for this mission while Sgt. 1st Class Derrick Parm takes the command role.
Parm, a 16-year Army Veteran and Hubbard, Ohio, native, is no stranger to Paulk’s team; he’s filled in with them before. As the convoy commander for this mission, he wastes no time, ensuring the team and vehicles are ready to go. With three other deployments under his belt, he is well experienced with adapting to changes.
Although Paulk is technically not in charge, he still can’t shed his command responsibilities. He walks around his MRAP, ensuring all PMCS measures have been performed. He ensures that his team arrives on time, meaning 15 minutes prior to work call.
“It’s such a routine that it’s second nature,” Paulk said. “There’s very little downtime. Everybody knows their job, and they come out and do it. You don’t really have to dictate or tell anybody to put this on the truck or put that on the truck. They do it every day.”
Paulk has been in the Army for 11 years—two of them with the Louisiana National Guard—and is serving his third tour in Iraq, although this is his first deployment conducting convoy security. Since arriving in country only a few months ago, he and his team have completed more than 60 security missions, he said.
“Convoy security is like herding cats,” Paulk said. “You have so many different moving pieces and other people to worry about other than yourself. You can’t stray from your mission at all. You can’t deviate in any way.”
Keeping this in mind helps the team to avoid complacency, a despised enemy in the world of convoy security.
“If you get complacent, your Soldiers are going to follow your lead,” Paulk said. “They’re going to get [relaxed]. They’re going to get comfortable. As long as you’re on your ‘Ps and Qs,’ as long as you’re doing everything by the book, your Soldiers are going to do the same thing.”
Parm said he wholeheartedly agrees. He explained that complacency is one of the most important things he warns his Soldiers about when preparing for a mission. Although the basic mission of moving convoys from one point to another is the same, no two missions are ever alike.
“They need to remain alert and focused on the mission,” he said. “It is hard to do when the threat is so sporadic and hidden.”
The time is nearing 6 a.m. and Parm instructs the team they have just enough time to drive to the dining facility to pick up “grab n’ go” meals before meeting with the Movement Control Team. After their short breakfast, they join the MCT, where they await confirmation of their movement time and the arrival of the trucks they are to escort.
As they wait, Spc. Ashley Phillips, the driver in Paulk’s vehicle and a Jonesville, Mich., native, finishes her checks on the MRAP and washes the windows.
Once she finishes her checks, she brushes her teeth and washes her face, a routine she performs before driving to keep herself alert while on the road, she said.
The 24-year-old is on her second tour of Iraq in her five-year Army career. A military policeman by trade, this deployment marks her first time driving for a convoy security mission.
Finally, the time has come. As they drive toward the gate, they prepare for one of their main threats—rock throwers. The situation is so serious that, during a prior mission, an MRAP’s window was shattered from a thrown rock.
Fortunately, the ride goes relatively smoothly. The team converses with each other while heavy metal music plays to keep them entertained. They pass a patch of farms, palm trees and sunflowers.
“The sunflowers are happy today,” Parm said to the team. “They’re all perked up. It might be a good day.”
Although the scenery and music keep them engaged, security is never far from their minds. Parm and Paulk actively point out potential threats as they ride along. Phillips’ eyes scan back and forth, up and down the road.
“You’re not going to get hit [very time you go out],” she said. “It’s going to take you getting hit one time, and you don’t know if you’re going to make it through. When I go outside the wire, I act like it’s the first mission.”
Finally, they reach their destination, and aside from two civilian trucks getting flat tires along the way, the trip is relatively eventless. The 199th FSC Soldiers stage near the MCT to rest and get lunch, while the civilian trucks separate from the convoy to drop off their deliveries. Some Soldiers even play soccer and throw around the football to relieve some of the stress. But for Parm, it’s still all business. He heads straight for the MCT to get the new return time and brief them on the trip.
As the return time approaches, the Soldiers each load into their MRAPs and head to the fuel point to prepare for the ride back. Returning can sometimes be the hardest part of the trip, Paulk said.
“That’s usually where you start taking things for granted and you start relaxing,” he said. “You can lose your focus just because you’re on the way back.”
Fortunately, the convoy gets back to base with no flat tires or shattered windows. However, the job isn’t over for the Soldiers with the convoy security team. They must now wait for each civilian driver to get cleared to enter the base. Once everyone is through, they must escort them to the convoy yard and then head to the motor pool to finish their post-mission checks and prepare for the next convoy. The mission is a success Parm said.
“The mission went very well,” he said. “[There were] no injuries and everyone came home safe.”