***image1***BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq – He wipes the sweat from his palms, getting a better grasp on the warm steel handles of the .50-caliber gun. Darkness stretches around him for miles, with the exception of the headlights from his convoy illuminating the road ahead. The Airman remains vigilant as he keeps a watchful eye. At this point, he is running off of pure adrenaline.
“It felt like a thousand eyes were on me, but I couldn’t see anyone,” said Airman Aaron Mendez about his first nighttime convoy mission outside the confines the base. “About a million things were going through my mind. I just wanted to make sure everything went smoothly.”
Airman Mendez is a gun truck operator with Detachment 2632. The detachment is one of two convoy detachments assigned to the 732nd Expeditionary Mission Support Group. The second unit is Det. 1058, stationed at a forward-operating base in Iraq.
More than 150 Airmen assigned to Det. 2632 provide convoy protection to civilian contractors and Army units delivering supplies throughout the area.
“Gun trucks have long played an important role in ensuring the safe passage of personnel and cargo in times of war and Det. 2632 is here to carry on that tradition,” said 1st Lt. Edward Torres, the detachment’s director of operations. “Our Airmen are out there putting their lives on the line every day, and they never complain.”
The lieutenant, deployed from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, said the unit can average anywhere from three to seven convoy missions a night with 30 to 60 vehicles in each one.
“The workload can get pretty intense sometimes, depending on how many missions we have and what they are,” he said. “My crews average 10- to 14-hour days (off the base). When on the road, it’s pretty much hurry up, wait and be flexible. Sometimes days are longer and sometimes shorter, you just never know.”
The unit comprises a variety of Air Force specialties including transporters, security forces, vehicle mechanics, supply Airmen, communications specialists, armory Airmen and logistics readiness officers, Lieutenant Torres said.
Staff Sgt. Brad Mitchell, the detachment’s lead vehicle commander, said out of the four deployments he has been on, this one is by far the most rewarding.
“This deployment is personal to me,” said the staff sergeant who is deployed from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. “I lost a close friend over here doing convoys. I knew him from the time he joined the military.
“He was killed by an (improvised explosive device) in Mosul, Iraq, last year,” he said. “I felt it was my duty to come here and honor his name. This deployment has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”
Before the unit’s six-month deployment, everyone in the detachment attended a six-week basic combat convoy course where they were trained to handle various situations they could face in theater such as vehicle attacks, kill zone evacuations and recovering downed vehicles, Lieutenant Torres said.
Security forces Airmen also attended a heavy-weapons course, while transporters familiarized themselves with any vehicles they were not used to driving on a daily basis.
All of the Airmen also underwent heavy-weapons qualification and familiarization and communications training as well as physical training.
Lieutenant Torres stressed the significance of what his Airmen are doing and the dangers they are faced with on a daily basis.
“Many convoys experience (situations of) one type or another, … ranging from a civilian vehicle getting too close to the convoy and us having to ‘politely’ shoo them away, to an actual improvised explosive device detonating on a convoy. Then everyone moving into action as training takes over in one of those unfortunate situations,” Lieutenant Torres said. “When one of these situations arises, we do everything in our power to prevent a civilian or coalition casualty first, and then we do what we have to do to protect ourselves, our equipment, as well as the personnel we are escorting by using any means and the minimum amount of force … necessary.”
Senior Airman Clint Berger, a gun truck operator with the detachment who is deployed from Ramstein, recalled one close encounter he faced with an improvised explosive device during a convoy mission.
“I remember we were coming back from a mission to Baghdad, and my vehicle was passing another one to catch back up to our spot in the convoy when I heard a boom,” he said. “I turned, looked back and saw a black cloud of smoke and debris. An IED had gone off right behind us. Had we been just a few seconds slower it would have hit our vehicle – that was a real eye-opener.”
“They do what they have to do out there to come back to me each and every night, and I thank the Lord for that just before I fall asleep,” Lieutenant Torres said.