‘Always on alert’

These M915A3s are heavily modified Freightliners.

Spc. Richard Baugh still gets nervous when he nears bridges or overpasses at night while driving his 18-wheeler. He involuntarily slows down and scans for snipers or improvised explosive devices. “There are times at night where I’ll think about IEDs, and and my level of alertness will peak,” Baugh says.

Except that the 25-year-old Baugh is alone, hauling the most ordinary of products: potatoes. He’s a company driver for Doug Andrews Distributing of Idaho Falls, Idaho. But from April 2006 to April 2007, he was part of the U.S. Army Reserve 1016th Quartermaster Company, tasked with freight deliveries throughout much of war-torn Iraq in M915s. Built by Freightliner, the M915’s armor-plating and other enhancements push the cost well above $500,000.

“It’s been a little rough transitioning back to the more docile United States,” says Baugh, who returned in late April. Baugh, who has a wife and three children, started trucking in 2005, doing regional hauls around Salt Lake City. He says he got into trucking mostly for the pay, as his passion always was in the military.

“I enlisted my senior year in high school,” Baugh says of his 2000 decision. “It was kind of a legacy thing for me. My father was in the Army, and my grandfather was in it, too.”

The original Iraq mission for Baugh and the roughly 170 members of the 1016th, based in Pocatello, Idaho, was mainly hauling diesel in 5,000-gallon tankers before private contractor KBR took over much of that duty. The unit drove M915s, basically armor-plated Freightliners, and later the massive Heavy Equipment Transports – the largest trucks in the Army’s inventory, generally used to haul M1A1 Abrams tanks. Baugh stuck with the M915s.

The group mainly hauled construction equipment and supplies and bottled water with the M915s. Each haul required about 30 troops, says Capt. Chris Warner, who led the unit. Most convoys were limited to 15 to 20 trucks so as not to become an inviting target, Warner says. The maximum speed was roughly 45 mph.

The 1016th was stationed at Camp Bucca, near where Pvt. Jessica Lynch was captured in 2003. The 1016th hauled only at night.

“If you saw something out of the view of the headlights, you can’t turn around and take another look to check it out,” says Sgt. 1st Class Edward Luper, second in command of the 1016th, who’s now back at his job as maintenance director for Arlo G. Lott Trucking in Jerome, Idaho.

Neither Baugh nor Warner ever came under fire, though others in the 1016th did. Bullets from small-arms fire penetrated engines, but no one in the unit was hit, Warner says. The unit also managed to avoid direct hits from IEDs, although members saw other units’ vehicles blown up.

“We were always on alert every time we went outside of the FOB,” Baugh says, referring to the forward operating base.

All convoys were escorted by several gun trucks, usually Humvees, but “I’d say we were very damn lucky,” Luper says. Those gunners were the main target of any sniper or small-arms fire. The diesel trucks, if hit, could have proved a deadly target. “You would be driving a real fireball if they got hit by an IED right to the truck. It would take it out and if the diesel were to flow out, then it would burn,” he adds.

Of 170 troops in the unit, 126 were drivers, but Baugh and Luper were among the few with heavy-truck experience, so Baugh became an informal instructor for many soldiers.

In many ways, driving trucks in Iraq mirrored life for an average trucker in the States, Luper says: delivering a load, eating out of a cooler in your cab or at a truck stop – or in this case, an FOB. “Our main food would come from the base itself, and we would load up on snack food.” Baugh says. The Army’s infamous Meals Ready to Eat were a last resort if the “Cheetos were gone,” Baugh says.

The uncomfortable body armor, however, was a constant reminder that this was not like trucking at home. “You become quite wet from sweat,” Luper says.

Upkeep on trucks could be harsh, Luper says. “The roads are bad over there, so there was a lot of suspension work.”

On older 12,000-lb. M915 trucks, the cabs would sometimes crack from the weight of added armor jostled on unpaved roads. Jim Fenske, program manager of U.S. military sales for Freightliner, says such cracking occured on older truck models. During the past two years, new M915 and additional military trucks have been built with increased axle, front-end, tire and brake capacity. Older 12,000 pounders are being retrofitted with larger capacity field kits as well, Fenske says.

Trucks were modified in other ways, such as adding exterior lights to improve side visibility, Luper says. The unit also installed electronic systems to create a “bubble” around the trucks to defeat infrared or laser-operated weapons.

Tires quickly wore out because of road hazards and the rough terrain. “We got a lot of experience changing tires,” Luper says. “We had a recovery vehicle with us that had spare tires, and if we were in an area that wasn’t as dangerous, we’d usually just change the tire there.” Otherwise, trucks rode on the flat to the nearest base.

If an engine failed and couldn’t be fixed within 15 minutes, the truck was towed, Luper says. Much longer, and the likelihood of inviting an enemy attack loomed larger. Vehicles never were left behind, even if coolant hoses had been bullet-riddled. Doing otherwise would invite their being outright stolen or stripped of parts, Warner says.

Baugh’s most memorable night occurred when his truck battery died near Taji, one of the most sniper-ridden areas. “We ended up being stranded with our convoy for about an hour and a half while we switched trucks,” Baugh says. “It was kind of nerve-wracking.”

That particular load was new trucks. Baugh used a complicated maneuver to switch out his truck. “I had to drive it forward onto the trailer with only one gear and one chance to get it right,” he recalls of the automatic M915. While that kind of stress often left Baugh and comrades fatigued, such incidents also gave him a new perspective on the normal headaches of trucking across the United States.

Yet, it wasn’t all stress in Iraq, either. The unit often switched driving teams, and Baugh enjoyed getting to know fellow members of the 1016th.

“Every night it was a new experience, just getting to understand how good human beings are,” Baugh says.

Super-heavy duty
The U.S. military uses mainly three trucks, according to Jim Fenske, program manager of U.S. military sales for Freightliner. AM General originally produced the M915-series trucks, including the M915A1, before Freightliner took over manufacturing. Freightliner based the M915A2 and newer models on its commercial FLD120 rigs.

Here are specs on the most widely used Freightliner models:

Transmission: Allison HD4560P, 6-speed automatic
Front Axle: ArvinMeritor FG941, 14,000 lbs.; Taperleaf suspension
Rear Axles: ArvinMeritor RT40-145, 40,000 lbs.
Tires: Michelin XZE 12R22.5, 16 ply
GCW: 105,000 lbs.

Transmission: Allison HD4070P, 7-speed automatic
Front Axle: ArvinMeritor 4414SFW, 18,500 lbs.; Taperleaf suspension
Rear Axles: ArvinMeritor RT52-160P, 52,000 lbs.
Tires: Front – Michelin XZY-3 425/65R22.5; rear – XDY-3 315/80R22.5
GCW: 130,000 lbs.

Transmission: Allison HD4070P, 7-speed automatic
Front Axle: ArvinMeritor 4414SFW, 18,500 lbs.; Taperleaf suspension
Rear Axles: ArvinMeritor RT52-160P, 52,000 lbs.
Tires: Front – Michelin XZY-3 425/65R22.5; rear – XZY-3 315/80R22.5
GCW: 68,000 lbs.

Engine: Detroit Diesel Series 60, 430-hp, 1,450 lb.-ft.
Rear Axle: TufTrac suspension, Trac-Tech No-Spin Differential
Brakes: ArvinMeritor Q+; WABCO anti-lock brakes; automatic slack adjusters
Wheels: Accuride hub-piloted

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