Imagine driving a truck in temperatures so hot your tires literally begin to melt as your rig rolls down the road. Now imagine further wearing 10 to 15 lbs. of body armor as you sit in the cab, knees knocking the barrel of your M-16 rifle with every shift, as you keep one eye on the highway in front of you while the other looks out for snipers, ambushes, roadside bombs and other hazards – because your truck cab isn’t armored, of course.

That’s just a glimpse into the 14-month tour recently completed in Iraq by the Williamstown, PA-based 131st Transportation Co., a unit of the 213th Area Support Group of the Pennsylvania National Guard.

Captain Laura McHugh, commander of the 131st, reports the unit’s tour of duty was a time of high stress for all involved. But she tells DRIVERS that it also provided a wealth of valuable experience for all 165 soldiers in her unit-- about 20% of whom are over-the-road truck drivers in civilian life.

“We learned a lot of things, especially the importance of regular and repeated training, the ability to improvise and adapt to the unexpected, and, of course, the value of vehicle maintenance,” McHugh explains. “My hope is that as my soldiers get on with their lives, they’ll recognize the importance of what they learned from this experience– especially the value of training.”

Train, train, and train some more

Clearly the one thing McHugh believes in more than anything is the value of training – and she feels the 131st’s tour in Iraq validated that belief.

“A big part of our day involves training – on security procedures, driving procedures, medical training, you name it,” she says. “The point is to train ourselves so well that the task becomes second nature. It becomes automatic, so you don’t have to think when a crisis occurs – you know exactly what to do almost by instinct.”

The company operated out of Kuwait with a fleet of 60 M915A4 tractors – a military day-cab version of the Freightliner FLD 120. The 131st would have upwards of five convoys on the road at any one time on missions lasting four to eight days.

“We had to learn flexibility – mechanics had to learn to become drivers and vice versa, for example,” McHugh says. “Maps weren’t that good, so we relied on GPS (Global Positioning Systems) to get us where we needed to go. After training with GPS, as long as we had our destination’s grid coordinates, we could get there and back.”

McHugh also focused – to an “almost obscene amount,” she says – on basic medical training so as many of her soldiers as possible could qualify as “Combat Life Savers.”

“It goes back to Vietnam, where many soldiers bled to death because their buddies didn’t have basic medical skills,” she explains. “I fully believe in the ‘Combat Life Saver’ program. Whereas most units have one CLS per 20 soldiers, we have 6 per 20. That training can save lives in a crisis.”

Adapt and improvise

“Improvisation” became an unspoken mantra of sorts for the 131st as the company came to grips with unexpected challenges while performing its supply mission.

“We were charged with delivering supplies – from food, water, and medicine to ammunition and replacement parts,” says McHugh. “We even helped support the movement other coalition forces, relocating Spanish, Italian, Czech and other troops.”

The 131st had to deal with a far more expansive territory than expected – it delivered supplies throughout Iraq rather than within a specific region or ‘theater of operations.’

“In Kuwait, we were four hours from the border, so our trucks would be on the road by six a.m. usually,” McHugh says. Her unit’s trucks – pulling 40 foot trailers -- would operate only in daylight ours for no more than 8 hours on the road, shuttling supplies to places such as Baghdad, Fallujah, Tikrit, Mosul, even to within sight of the Turkish and Syrian borders. Secure stopping points – basically fortified rest stops manned by U.S. or British troops – were set up at four-hour intervals along the main supply routes (MSRs) and alternate supply routes (ASRs).

Replacement parts were in short supply all the time, forcing her mechanics to practice “creative maintenance” on the road. “We had only one wrecker, so usually a mechanic or two would travel with a convoy to provide emergency service in case of a breakdown,” notes McHugh.

The 131st never left vehicles behind – “Iraqis could strip a truck bare within 30 minutes” – so improvisation was indeed critical. “Our mechanics learned which parts were essential to running a vehicle and which weren’t – they would cannibalize parts to get a vehicle to the next secure area, where they could find replacement parts, bartering for them if need be,” McHugh says.

Communications represented another hurdle, as the Army only provided 24 radios for the unit’s 60 trucks. “So our guys got CBs (Citizen’s Band radios) so all the trucks could stay in contact with each other – everyone had to know what was going on,” she explains.

Maintenance matters

Getting the word to head “up North,” as the 131st troopers called it – they almost never referred to Iraq by name – always refocused everyone on vehicle maintenance and the mission they’d be on.

“You simply can’t fathom the heat and the sand,” says McHugh. “Imagine driving in a sandstorm, with no visibility, with the temperature at 146 degrees [F] outside the cab. The tires in some cases literally melted right on the trucks.”

Yet supplies needed to be moved– in fact, the 131st would log 2 million miles of travel during its tour – so vehicle maintenance became incredibly critical “You could clean air filters for 20 minutes and still get sand out of them,” McHugh explains. “So we were conducting ‘Checks & Services’ all the time – before we got on the road, at every secure area, while waiting at the port in Kuwait to load supplies – to make sure our vehicles were ready to roll.”

The unit’s 15 mechanics bartered constantly for replacement parts and spare tires as harsh conditions took their toll on their vehicles. “Most of them are full-time guardsmen, so they knew our trucks inside and out,” she says. “That’s why they were so adept at keeping them up and running, and getting them back on the road after a breakdown.”

The home front

“For the first 6 months, we handled it [being away] all right,” says McHugh. “After that, though, it became harder – financial issues were the biggest strain. Also, over 20% of our unit is female, so we had a lot of mothers experiencing their first long stretch away from their kids.”

McHugh is herself married with children and says the families back home had just as hard a tour in some cases as members of the 131st did. “The spouse at home was usually working but also taking care of the kids, the bills, and everything else while we were deployed,” she says. “In some ways, we had it easier – all we had to do was get up, brush our teeth, put our helmets on and go to work.”

McHugh made sure her soldiers stayed focused – concentrating on the job and not what was going on back home. “You have to focus completely on the mission, the task at hand – you can’t be driving in a convoy worrying about what’s going on at home,” she explains. “To stay safe and alert to danger, we had to completely focus on our mission – that’s what keeps you alive.”

Moving on

With the 131st‘s tour over, McHugh’s soldiers have gone back to their careers and families, even as she herself prepares to move on. After five years as commander of the 131st, she’s looking at promotion to major and a new job with the recruitment command of the Pennsylvania National Guard.

But she plans to keep the lessons she learned in Iraq, driving along the desert roads, close at hand.

“We faced a lot of challenges in Iraq – we were one of the first transportation companies to arrive there so we were a ‘guinea pig’ of sorts,” she says. “But we became very good at our mission – to the point where two of our ‘green trucks’ would be assigned to guide convoys made up of civilian contractors from other nations – Greece and Turkey, for example – whose drivers didn’t speak any English, yet we still made our deliveries. Those are accomplishments and we’ll remember them for a long time to come.”