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Combat Convoy: Air Force targets tactical transportation so the enemy has less chance of doing so

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Mike Hammond
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
Nobody had to convince Staff Sgt. David Camacho about the importance of the Basic Combat Convoy Course. The area where the training takes place -- Camp Anderson-Peters in San Antonio -- was partially named after an Airman in his platoon. Airman 1st Class Carl Anderson Jr. was killed Aug. 29, 2004, by an improvised explosive device while in a convoy near Mosul, Iraq. 

Sergeant Camacho last saw Airman Anderson just before the fatal mission. 

"To be able to shake hands and give Anderson a hug before we went out on our separate convoys, and then he didn't come back ... that was a hard core reality check," Sergeant Camacho said. "But it told me that everything we were supposed to be learning means something. When somebody says, 'This is the difference between life and death,' that's what it actually means -- life or death." 

Sergeant Camacho described the fallen Airman as a friend and "a pretty popular guy." Camp Anderson-Peters is named for Airman Anderson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Peters, who died July 11, 2004, while on convoy duty in the same general area in Iraq. So it was bittersweet for Sergeant Camacho, a truck commander, when he returned to the area named for his comrade and friend for training earlier this summer just before another deployment -- this time to war-torn Afghanistan. 

Where the Action Is 

The Basic Combat Convoy Course -- commonly known as BC3 -- manages to stay as current, applicable and valid as possible because its instructors are never too far from the pointy end of the spear, according to Master Sgt. Craig Dougherty, superintendent of BC3, which falls under the 342nd Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Every six months, two to three members of the instructor cadre travel to the area of responsibility in Afghanistan or Iraq to see how operations are going, he said. 

"The instructors personally go on a combat convoy or two and talk to leaders and troops on the ground," Sergeant Dougherty said. 

Their goal is to gather intelligence on anything that might need to be updated or altered in the curriculum based on real world changes, he said. That not only includes surviving the enemy, but surviving themselves as well. In the recent past, more troops in Afghanistan and Iraq were dying from preventable mishaps, such as vehicle accidents, than at the hands of the enemy. The cadre wants to prevent both. 

By deploying to areas of conflict, the instructors are able to bring the most realistic training back to their students, Sergeant Dougherty said. 

It doesn't take long for Sergeant Camacho and his fellow trainees to get a taste of that realism ...

Train Like They Fight 

The crunching of tires over gravel interrupts the symphony of insects in the otherwise peaceful Texas night. Headlights invade the darkness as eight vehicles move along a convoluted route in the rolling, wooded terrain of Camp Anderson-Peters. 

Inside the second vehicle, a Humvee with the call sign "Gun 2," four Airmen spend one of their few remaining nights in America for a long while, watching for danger and testing each other's skills. The Airmen are part of a group of 28 transportation specialists completing the Basic Combat Convoy Course before a six-month deployment to Afghanistan (only the second class specifically trained for the missions in Afghanistan). 

A dim red light comes and goes inside the cab of Gun 2 as Sergeant Camacho scans a map of their route. The momentary silence is broken as the truck commander corrects Airman 1st Class Dennis Rogeski on his driving habits. 

"Rogeski! Middle of the road!" Sergeant Camacho snarls. "When we're in country, I need you to be afraid of the sides of the road!" 

The Men Behind Gun 2 

Airman Rogeski began the training course after only nine months in the Air Force. His proficiency belies his youth. New to the Air Force, newly married and with a new baby girl at home, the BC3 training marks the bright, confident Airman's first temporary duty assignment. Yet, he will be a combat veteran before his infant daughter's first birthday and his own first anniversary in the service. 

In comparison, Sergeant Camacho is a grizzled veteran. He has been through the course before ... and he's been to war. The 13-year veteran was a member of the first "spire" of trainees to attend BC3 when it was established in mid-2004, and he deployed to conduct convoy operations in Iraq following that training. He is the consummate "leader from within" -- and one of several members who have previously trained at the camp and then deployed. 

With the lessons of war in mind, Sergeant Camacho's voice frequently cuts through the occasionally monotonous drive as he quizzes Airman Rogeski and the other members of Gun 2 -- Senior Airman Christopher Templeton and Airman 1st Class Oscar Martinez-Escobar -- on policies and procedures. The Airmen display an impressive knowledge level as they answer most questions correctly. 

Assigned to the combat lifesaver/assistant gunner position, Airman Templeton has the quiet confidence and "been there, done that" demeanor one might expect of a seasoned combat veteran. Having completed a deployment to Iraq as a combat vehicle operator, where he was part of "160 or more convoys," he reacts quickly and efficiently to situations he encounters. Cool under pressure, it's tough to tell if he's more eager for the next simulated firefight or the next raid of Airman Rogeski's stash of hard candy -- but he's equally adept at making either the candy or the enemy disappear. 

Airman Martinez, a 21-year old father of three, is a lanky, quiet young man who does not hesitate to make noise with his .50 caliber machine gun from the gunner's mount when the convoy is threatened. He struggles often while trying to swing the heavy weapon around in the turret, but never gives up until "Ma Deuce" is trained in the direction he needs her.

Traffic Control Points 

As the crew of Gun 2 approaches an intersection in the road ahead, Sergeant Camacho yells "TCP! TCP!" -- short for traffic control point. Instantly, the Humvee accelerates as Airman Rogeski maneuvers Gun 2 around the lead vehicle and stops broadside across the intersecting road. Airman Martinez swings the M-2 around to cover the direction. 

"We do this at traffic control points to make sure no other vehicle can compromise the convoy," the truck commander said. 

It was a drill to be repeated many times during the trip. Any intersecting road prompted Gun 2 to spring into action while the other vehicles passed. Gun 2 then had to get back into position, passing other vehicles on narrow roads that at any point may have an IED lying in wait. 

Suddenly, Gun 2 grinds to a halt behind the lead vehicle. 

Casualties of War 

"Gun 5 got hit ... two casualties," said Sergeant Camacho while listening to the truck's radio communications unit. 

Airman Martinez prepares to signal the medical evacuation chopper when it is in range, as the other vehicles in the convoy form a "box" behind Gun 2. Moments later, Gun 4 screams up the road and joins the back of the box. Airmen bail out quickly as their buddies take defensive positions to cover them in the event of enemy fire. They drag their two wounded comrades from Gun 5 into the relative shelter of the middle of the box and begin to assess the simulated injuries. 

Before the first tourniquet can be applied, muzzle flashes light up the surrounding woods like a firefly mating extravaganza. Airmen scramble into position, seeking protection while returning fire against the "hostiles." The instructors of BC3 have set up an improbable attack of the convoy's rally point. Now the students have two immediate missions: Save the injured, and stay alive themselves. 

In the relative shelter of the box, a team of two works on each of the IED casualties. One suffers from facial wounds, and the other is losing an arm. During the classroom portion of the training course, all students receive hands-on training in combat lifesaving skills -- the training Army soldiers get to treat wounded in the field until professional care is available. The training includes administering an IV, proper tourniquet procedures and many other first aid skills. 

In the heat of the moment, most of these skills have left the mind of one Airman providing care. 

"Maybe you should put a tourniquet on, so your buddy doesn't lose an arm," yells Tech. Sgt. Jody Clary, an independent duty medical technician serving on the cadre as both medical instructor and as an operational medic to prevent and treat any real-world injuries during the training. 

As precious minutes go by, Sergeant Clary grows more disappointed with the trainee's performance. 

"He's bleeding out!" she says, knowing that in a real-world situation the injured man would be dying by now. 

Eventually, the Airman realizes it is better to give up and let someone more confident step in to care for his fallen comrade. Unfortunately, this decision comes too late; the cadre declares the victim "KIA" -- killed in action. 

"All four of you are going to write letters to his family when this is done, explaining to them why their son died," Sergeant Clary said. "You failed as a team, and he lost his life."

Time to Regroup 

After the team successfully simulates medically evacuating the other casualty, the cadre debriefs the students and challenges them to get it together for the rest of the exercise. 

"You all are about to deploy to a war zone!" says Staff Sgt. Wayne Tokarz, a member of the cadre. "You guys will get attacked. How many of you here want to put that body in a body bag and take it with you back to base?" 

Failure in training brings the wrath of instructors; failure in theater brings officers in service dress blues to the door of a friend's parents. 

The convoy members mount up and move on down the road. An air of solemnity hangs over the members of Gun 2. 

"We've got to get it together, man!" says Airman Templeton, to no one in particular. 

"Yeah! Now they're really gonna hit us hard," Airman Rogeski predicts as he thinks about his angry instructors. 

The ensuing silence drips with the realization that it's actually way more important than what drills the cadre will come up with next. 

Several IED and small arms fire attacks later, the smell of sweat in the cab of Gun 2 is only overpowered by the acrid scent of gunpowder from many .50 caliber blank shells. Airman Martinez has nearly exhausted Gun 2's limited supply of ammo in cutting down "insurgents" opposing the convoy. The team, as expected by the instructors, did improve from the shaky performance at the beginning of the night. 

Until recently, most of these Airmen were driving pilots to the flight line and general officers to meetings. Now they showed the camaraderie and skill sets of troops in war.

"We're almost there!" Airman Rogeski said, with a sense of relief. 

At a Crossroads 

As the team reached the final intersection in their field exercise, they found themselves at a crossroads. In training they faced blank rounds and powder-filled balloon IEDs -- secure in the knowledge that everyone would be back in their tent that morning no matter how it went. When they hit the AOR, it's for real. 

Sergeant Camacho said he hopes no one else has to learn about the importance of this training the way he and his platoon mates did that August day nearly three years ago when Airman Anderson lost his life. 

They have trained as they will fight ... now they must fight as they have trained. 

This article was originally published in the summer (July/August) edition of TORCH Magazine -- Air Education and Training Command's safety publication.