Combat Convoy - The 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 Office
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.

Camacho last saw Anderson just before he went on 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," Camacho said quietly as he searched for the words to convey his loss. "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."

Camacho described Anderson as a friend and "a pretty popular guy." Camp Anderson-Peters is named for 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 bitter-sweet for Camacho, a truck commander, when he returned to the area named for his comrade and friend for training 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," 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.

So by deploying to areas of conflict, the instructors are able to bring the most realistic training back to their students, Dougherty explained.

It doesn't take long for 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 quiet 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 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!" Camacho snarls. "When we're in country, I need you to be afraid of the sides of the road!"

The Men Behind Gun 2
Rogeski has been in the Air Force only nine months. 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, Camacho is a grizzled veteran. He has been through the course before ... and he's been to war. The 13-year veteran was among the first 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, Camacho's voice frequently cuts through the occasionally monotonous drive as he quizzes 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, 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 hitting up Rogeski for his stash of hard candy along the way - but he's equally adept at making the candy or the enemy disappear.

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, Camacho yells "TCP! TCP!" - short for traffic control point. Instantly, the Humvee accelerates as Rogeski maneuvers around the lead vehicle and stops broadside across the intersecting road. 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," Camacho explained.

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 Camacho while listening to the truck's radio communications unit.

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 attack of the convoy's rally point. The students lost situational awareness, and they decided to rally entirely too close to the kill zone. There's a price to pay for such carelessness.

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 a real medic to prevent and treat any real-world injuries during the training.

As precious minutes go by, 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 cadre declares the victim "KIA" - or 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," Clary instructs. "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 blue service dress uniforms 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 Templeton, to no one in particular.

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

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. 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!" Rogeski hollers, with a sense of relief.

At a Crossroads
As the team reaches the final intersection in their field exercise, they find themselves at a crossroads. This week, they faced blank rounds and powder-filled balloon IEDs. ... Next week, it's for real.

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

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