PARWAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan – They roll like a freight train in the night, 25 enormous vehicles linked by radio waves and a common purpose. Their route: Bagram Air Field to Forward Operating Base Warrior, 200 miles south down one of the most dangerous roads in Afghanistan, Highway 1.
The convoy, conducted by the Louisiana National Guard’s 1086th Transportation Company, Task Force Muleskinner, is led by a gigantic mine resistant ambush protected vehicle, pushing a ponderous mine roller that looks like dozens of giant pallet jack castors attached to a field cultivator.
Five more mine resistant ambush protected vehicles and an armored wrecker travel behind the scout truck. They are spaced between the host nation trucks – freight trucks owned and operated by local Afghans - that are not covered in thick plating like they are.
The host nation trucks are hired by the U.S. to transport all varieties of cargo: office supplies, food, equipment, ammunition, even tanks of helium for the house-size surveillance dirigibles that the Army floats over many of its bases here.
Moving supplies on such restive ground is treacherous, but necessary. After more than a decade, the coalition effort here is so vast that it can’t be fed by air alone. Every convoy is a pulse of lifeblood to the forward operating bases and combat outposts they reach.
It’s the 1086’s job to ensure all that vital cargo safely reaches the soldiers in the field.
“We get it done by any means necessary,” said Spc. Jonathan Soto, a gunner from Patterson, La. “Whatever stands in our way we will overcome and complete the mission. We are the cream of the crop.”
Each mine resistant ambush protected vehicle is a fortress in and of itself, complete with powerful weapons, life support systems, and the latest surveillance technology. The powerful engines growl like wolves, and the doors open and close with whirrs and hisses like the space ships in movies.
Inside ride a truck commander, a gunner, and a driver who are encased in their own armored plating from head to toe – shells within a shell. The extreme precautions are vital, as the roads they travel are plagued with the number one threat to soldiers in this war – improvised explosive devices.
“It’s probably the most dangerous job out there right now,” said Spc. Eric Mitchell, a driver from New Orleans. “We’re on the road constantly and [insurgents] are blowing them up and shooting at us, and it’s not like we can grow wings and fly away from it.”
“IEDs are always a worry in the back of your mind,” said Sgt. 1st Class Mark Ponthier, a platoon sergeant from Hessmer, La. “But we love the road. It’s what we do and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Cramped up and strapped in, the soldiers of the 1086th Transportation Company will often ride for more than 20 grueling hours in a stretch, under cover of the night as much as possible.
Their path to FOB Warrior takes them over the poverty-stricken streets of Kabul, and through shattered villages that look like post-apocalyptic backgrounds in a Mad Max movie.
Once outside the main urban hubs, however, the countryside seems serene, even picturesque in places, but unless something drastic happens, they will remain encapsulated in their machines like astronauts, scanning every square inch around them for any tiny sign of trouble.
An exposed wire next to the road, a patch of freshly turned dirt, metallic glints of light - anything even slightly suspicious could be deadly in this land.
Indeed, once or twice an hour they have to detour the entire caravan around a blast crater from a previous IED, sobering reminders that this is no Sunday joy ride.
Not that they need reminding.
Nine months into their one-year tour, nearly every soldier in the unit has been in a convoy that was hit by one of the insurgent’s bombs.
“We got hit, took small arms fire, and I got my [combat action badge] my first mission out,” said Spc. Robin Morgan of Pine Prairie, La. “But I’m doing what I love. We do it for our families so they can enjoy life back home.”
“My very first mission out one of our gun trucks got hit ten kilometers outside of [Bagram Air Field],” said truck commander Sgt. Richard Baum of Las Vegas, Nev. “I don’t worry, though. This is my fourth deployment so I know what I’m getting in to.”
“I’ve been in two roll-overs, so I have a different type of luck,” chuckled Spc. Jonathan Soto, a gunner from Patterson, La., “I’m a little afraid every time we leave, but the Army has trained me and I’m real good at what I do. I have a strong team around me that gives me the confidence to go out there.”
The 1086th Transportation Company has taken its’ share of lumps but the good thing is that, so far, everybody has walked away, said 1st Sgt. Tim Croulet, of Anacoco, La.
“They still don’t hesitate to go outside the wire,” he said. “These soldiers do their jobs for all the right reasons.”
With 100 days left in-country, the general outlook within the ranks is that there is still cargo that must be delivered, terrorists be damned.
“I don’t get scared. I personally like going out on the road,” said Spc. Elizabeth Nall, a driver from Krotv Springs, La., “It’s better than staying in the barracks. I’m a soldier and I’m trained to do this stuff.”
Even without the added danger of insurgent attacks, Afghan roads are a memorable experience. There is no such thing as an Afghan driver’s license, for instance, or an Afghan traffic cop. Traveling is pretty much a free-for-all. “Lanes” are non-existent, and drivers will often make two or three lanes where there should only be one in order to bypass obstacles.
Ideally, the convoy would not stop moving because every minute spent standing still is another minute the enemy can zero in on them.
However, convoys are not immune from getting stuck in traffic, and the HNTs are often not in good repair. One after another of them breaks down during the trip to FOB Warrior. When this happens the entire convoy has to be halted until repairs can be made or the load shifted to a backup truck.
“Our mechanics are like a NASCAR pit crew,” said mission commander Sgt. David Fontenot, from Opelousas, La. “They have to jump out and fix whatever the problem is - quick.”
It’s a nail-biting experience until, finally, the convoy commander calls out the order to “start pushing” again.
After two nights of methodical trucking the convoy finally pulls into FOB Warrior just as the first pale light is coating the horizon.
Once their cargo is downloaded, the soldiers of the 1086th wearily sack out on any cot or floor space they can find in the transient tents for the day, and then mount up as it gets dark again to begin the return trip.
The vast majority of the soldiers on the forward operating base won’t ever know they were there - except the shelves of the post exchange will be restocked, or that backhoe they’ve needed desperately will magically be parked in the motor pool. Once they realize they’ve been resupplied, there will be no one there to thank.
By that time, the 1086th will be rolling back down the road.