Monday, May 02, 2011

Desert Storm - Back To Saudi

With the ground war wrapped up and the cease fire agreement signed, we were ordered to return to Saudi Arabia and set up camp near the Iraqi border where we spent the weeks leading up to the ground war. In order to allow those who were on flight status but didn't fly the regular missions to get their hours in, Slim, T.D. and I were assigned to drive back in a CUCV so the others could fly.

"CUCV" was the acronym for "Commercial Utility Carrying Vehicle" and was used to describe either a Chevrolet Blazer or a GMC Pickup Truck. Either model had an 8-cylinder diesel engine and an automatic transmission. These vehicles had supposedly been "toughened" to meet military specifications, but the only real differences I could see to differentiate them from their civilian counterparts was the paint job and the modification of the electrical system to accommodate the 24-volt radio systems.

During our time in the Middle East, I developed a taste for the MRE Ham Slice meal for breakfast. Even cold, it wasn't a bad way to start the day. It was a tasty thing after some lemon pepper seasoning had been sprinkled on top. Every time we opened a new box of MREs I tried to snag the ham slice meal for my next breakfast. Leading up to the convoy back to Saudi Arabia, I had collected four or five and stashed in a box in the back seat of the vehicle.

T.D. drove, I rode shotgun and Slim was in the back seat. The vehicle assigned to us was a dog. It would run just fine for several miles, and then the engine would stop unexpectedly. After sitting for several minutes, it could be started again and then run with no problems for a several more miles. The malfunction seemed to get worse as the day wore on. I wondered if the heat had something to do with it. This, as you can imagine, didn't work out well when driving in a long convoy.

As we made our first rest stop, I checked the back seat for one of my ham slices, only to find they were gone. Slim noticed I was looking for them and told me he'd thrown them out to some people we'd passed earlier in the morning. I was rather upset; first because I didn't have my favorite breakfast and second because he'd tossed them out to people whose religion forbade them from enjoying my favorite breakfast food. I'd have thought someone specially trained in Arabic language and culture would have thought of this.

Added to that the stress of this broken vehicle ... Of course, I have more colorful descriptions of it which I won't share in a family space. As the morning went on, we would end up at the back of the convoy because of the constant starting and stopping of the engine. The mechanics assigned to our convoy group would pour over the engine to try to figure out what was going on to no avail. In the past they had changed out the fuel filter, the fuel lines, and other assorted parts with no success. They were still stumped as to the cause and solution to it's woes.

When we caught up with the group at the lunch break, I was on my last nerve. I complained to whomever was around that the situation was totally unacceptable and that we should be allowed to ride in another vehicle and the thing we were assigned to should be blown up in place or towed back to our camp in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, there were no seats in any other vehicles and the tow truck already had another vehicle hitched up to it.

One of the motor pool staff came up with an idea. They took a brass aircraft tie-down chain, hooked it up to the tie-down shackle on the driver-side front of our vehicle and attached the other end to a tie-down shackle on the back of a fuel HEMTT.

While not an ideal arrangement, it seemed better than the alternative to being stuck in the middle of the Iraqi desert waiting for someone to come back for us. (Does being stuck out in the desert sound familiar?)

The problem came as we were pulled along, at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. Since the chain was attached at the "corner" of the vehicle, T.D. had to constantly steer to keep us behind the the towing truck. Because the engine wasn't running, this was hard to do because the power steering not operational. Stopping was even more problematic. The driver of the truck in front of us would often stop short, leaving T.D. to react quickly lest we smash into the back of fueler. Without the engine running and the power brakes working, he had to really stand on the pedal to get the vehicle to stop. There was more than one occasion we hit the back of the truck hard enough to slam us against our seat belts. The fact that it was a fuel truck towing us didn't make the situation any better, to be sure.

That's why I say this was probably the most dangerous part of the war. This whole situation was totally unsafe from the get go.

At one point, the driver side tie-down shackle was sheared off when the truck which was pulling us took off rather quickly. We attached the chain to the passenger-side shackle and kept on going until it soon pulled off, too. No one wanted to attach the chain to anything under the vehicle lest something would break to make the truck totally unrepairable. In my mind, it was past the point to worry about that.

So, there we were stuck someplace in the middle of nowhere, in the desert of Iraq. Dozens of vehicles passed us on the road and dozens more in the sands of the desert off the road, too. Even vehicles with a penchant for breaking down all the time were going past us under their own power (anyone remember the TACJAM?).

We would wave at the trucks as they passed. Every so often someone would stop to ask us what unit we were assigned to so they could report our location. I let them, figuring that the more people who knew about our plight the more likely someone would remember to come back to get us.

Finally, a tow truck stopped. They were from Support Squadron, the Muleskinners, a nickname hearkening back to the old days of the cavalry. A sergeant and his driver hopped out and offered to try to get us going. The sergeant climbed under the hood and started messing around with the fuel lines. I described what had been happening with the vehicle all day and the history of changing out just about the entire fuel system. His solution was to try to bypass the fuel filter as this may have been the cause of the problem.

As he was working on the engine, I was chain smoking. I was nervous about being stuck there and really wanted to get going again. The driver of the tow truck eyed me intently. "Hey Sergeant, can I have a smoke? I haven't had a smoke in two days."

"Sure," I replied, "have the rest of the pack. I have more."

While I was digging around in my duffel bag for another pack of smokes, Slim came up to me at the back of the truck. I don't remember his exact words, but he said something to me like, "I don't like what that guy is doing. I think he's making unauthorized repairs to the vehicle."

Now, I'm normally one to follow the rules and regulations. Under some circumstances, though, one has to look beyond the letter of the law and look to what is best in a given situation. Certainly the Army's rules about unauthorized repairs were not meant to prevent us from getting a safe location before sundown. I told Slim to keep his mouth shut and that I'd take the heat if anyone in authority made a big deal about it.

Unfortunately, the sergeant wasn't able to get the vehicle running again. He tried a few tricks, but nothing would get it going. I asked if he could tow us back to our camp.

"Well, I'd like to. But I'm the last guy in the last convoy in our Squadron. If I tow you back, I won't be able to tow one of my own vehicles back."

"Well, could you at least tow us along for now. You can unhitch and leave us if one of your vehicles breaks down. At least we'd be a little closer to where we need to be."

He pondered that, and eyed my cigarette. His driver had already given him a smoke out of the nearly full pack I'd given him earlier. Then it hit me - a trade!

"I'll tell you what. I'll give you an entire carton of smokes if you take me back to my camp. If you have to leave me on the way because one of your squadron's trucks breaks down that'll be OK. Just, please take us as far as you can."

He thought about that for about two seconds and agreed to the offer. That was the best trade I ever made. Thank you, Mom, for sending me smokes during that time. We've all wised up and quit since then, but at the time it was certainly a good habit to have.

It turned out that we had stopped only about 30 or so miles from our camp in Saudi Arabia. Thankfully, none of the other squadron's trucks broke down and we were towed the entire way back. We were reunited with our cohorts within a couple of hours, just before sunset. All was well with the world again.

Until the next morning, however. Our Troop Commander came by and told us he'd worked out a way to rig a chain to the truck again so we could continue on to the port. I told him in no uncertain terms (but with all military courtesy, mind you) that there was no way I nor anyone under my authority was going to do that again. I explained to him the problems we had and how unsafe the action truly was. I ended my speech on the topic with something like, "The war is over, there is no need to risk our lives over getting a broke down truck back home."

He didn't like that answer, so he sent the First Sergeant to try to reason with me. He and I saw eye-to-eye on the safety thing, but he was falling on the side of following orders. In my mind, this order was illegal (and pretty darn stupid) because of the risk to life and limb. I don't think I'm exaggerating the danger we really were in being towed that way.

Finally, our Lieutenant (and I think The Scounger) went and worked out a plan with the Captain. The dead truck was loaded up onto a flatbed trailer which had been brought in to take a few other broken down vehicles to the port. Off it went, to probably end up in a junk heap somewhere.

Thankfully, the last leg of our journey to the port was via helicopter. It was a pleasant, smooth flight.

Next - the trip home.

This is part 17 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

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