“That’s what we trained for!”

Story and photos by Spc. John Radar, 149th VCC Unit Public Affairs Historian Representative

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Armored vehicles of the 149th Vertical Construction Company protect a convoy traveling in Afghanistan, June 5, 2013. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. John Radar)

Regional Command North Territory, Afghanistan —  The Kentucky National Guard’s 149th Vertical Construction Company mounted their up-armored vehicles on June 5, 2013 for their third convoy mission, leaving their main center of operations and heading toward the mountains of Afghanistan. The mission for the Guardsmen was to pick up equipment from a detachment of 149th Soldiers at a forward operating base in North East Afghanistan and haul it back to their hub of operation, where the main body of the unit resides.

The unit showed their skill of versatility by applying multiple layers of training they’ve accomplished in the years leading up to this deployment, by not only completing many vertical construction missions, but also by applying tactical convoy operations synonymous with their training for route clearance.

“I was excited to get out and see the country side and do something other than construction at this point, and if we see a little action…well, that’s what we trained for,” said Spc. Shawn Illig.

The unit rolled out with multiple gun trucks for security, as well as a few trucks and trailers for the hauling. Passing through all types of terrain ranging from low level flats to steep mountain sides, the Guardsmen get a very up-close and personal view of the day to day lives and living conditions of the residents of Afghanistan.

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A young Afghan civilian looks from the patio of his home in eastern Afghanistan, June, 2013. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. John Rader)

“Watching the Afghani people farming and building houses in their villages is a really neat thing to see. I also noticed how their daily routine involves teaching their children how to herd sheep or make bricks for building. Although our trucks seem intimidating coming down the road, if they got to know us, they would realize that we teach our children similar things back home,” said Sgt. Clifton Estes.

The convoy takes about 10 hours to reach its destination with one refueling stop that includes a chow break. All the vehicles are inspected during the stop, checking for maintenance issues to ensure that no problems will arise while on the road in a hostile environment. Many issues can be easily avoided by these routine inspections, but blowing out a tire or an electrical malfunction is an ever-present concern amongst the 149th Soldiers as they are on the road.

The soldiers arrived at their destination with no problems. They can now give their vehicles another once over to look for damages or maintenance issues. After inspections, the troops prepare the trucks to be loaded with stowage containers, building supplies and other miscellaneous materials they need. Any trucks with issues are sent to have repairs made, ensuring all is at top operating condition for the trip back.

It takes a few days to complete, but while the trucks are inspected, fixed, and loaded, the soldiers have some down time to recover from the very rough drive. Much of the road along the way is gravel topped with large potholes. The other half of the route is paved with hard surfaces, and yet some of the trucks have an incredibly unforgiving suspension to make for a dreadfully jarring trip. The Kentucky Guardsmen now have time to relax and take in a good night’s sleep before the return trip.

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Convoy trucks of the 149th Vertical Construction Company are passed by a local wedding party in eastern Afghanistan, June, 2013. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. John Rader)

On June 10, the troops stood ready by their vehicles and received the convoy briefing for the excursion, with full load in tow. After the safety brief and prayer, the Guardsmen mount their up-armored vehicles and get buckled in. The trucks line up in tactical order as they roll out the gate and into the unprotected open fields of the Afghan countryside. All convoys that the 149th Soldiers have made so far have been without incident, but the well trained Vertical Engineer Company is trained to not let their guard down.

Just before midnight in the countryside of Afghanistan, the Guardsmen are just an hour outside of their destination. All seems quite on the dark gravel road that spans through a small village made up of just a few homes and some farms. The surrounding terrain is relatively flat, so the headlights of the trucks can be seen for miles around.

A flash of light interrupted the convoy as it passed between the first and second truck of the fleet. The radios began to pick up with chatter from the group as it was quickly realized that the flash of light was a rocket propelled grenade and the convoy was under attack. More RPGs followed as the trucks took a hail of small arms fire. The radio chatter called out the distance and the direction of fire. The group made the decision to refrain from using any of the larger caliber weapons in the 149th’s arsenal, due to the surrounding village and civilians.

“We knew the small arms fire couldn’t damage the hulls of the armored vehicles, so that wasn’t really a concern. The RPGs however could have jarred us up a bit, but luckily none of them made a direct impact to the side of any truck,” explained Sgt. 1st Class Eric Weiss. “We made the decision to accelerate out of the area and not wake up the neighborhood with a fire fight.”

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Soldiers of 2nd Platoon, 149th Vertical Construction Company gather for a group photo prior to their return trip on a convoy mission in eastern Afghanistan, June, 2013. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. John Rader)

With more than 10 trucks in the convoy, the fleet stretched the length of a couple football fields. The trucks in the back that heard of the assault on the radio knew they were heading right into the skirmish, but not to be taken by surprise. The attack seemed to have little effect on the trucks or the personnel inside. All members of the convoy knew their part and reacted with a flawless finesse by maintaining radio contact with each other and constant eyes on the enemy.

“We are trained and equipped to handle this type of contact with an enemy, however, when I assessed the situation it was in our best interest, and the interest of others, for us to just get out of there,” said 1st Lt. Michael Hamblin, convoy commander. “We were being shot at by an enemy that was in hiding, in a small village, with a number of innocent local nationals probably sleeping in their beds. It wasn’t the best place. Our mission was to haul equipment and we completed that mission best by just moving forward out of the kill zone instead of sticking around to fight back.”

After moving out of the danger zone, the trucks made a brief halt to inspect the damage done. Small arms rounds left plenty of scratch marks on the armor, the roof of a trailer truck got beat up with shrapnel, taking off some antennas, but all the equipment in tow seemed to be un-harmed.

The 149th Kentucky Guardsmen made it back to their destination knowing they handled the assault the best way they could have. No persons were injured and the mission was complete. Arriving at the base at just about 2 a.m., the soldiers, tired from their long trip were more than ready to get some sleep.

“It’s all in a day’s work,” said Sgt. Ron Clere. “I’m just glad we all arrived safe and nobody was hurt. We did a good job and the right thing, now I’m just ready for some shut eye.”

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