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Vehicle operators named 'team of the year'

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (May 23, 2005) -- The Army has traditionally provided protection for supply and munitions convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan, but when manning shortages made it tough for Soldiers to fulfill that role, the Air Force provided help.

As many as 25 percent of Airmen in the vehicle operations career field were specially trained to assist in convoy operations in Southwest Asia. Those Airmen now operate outside the traditional roles of their career field by providing security and support to convoys supporting the war on terrorism.

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Their primary mission is to escort and protect convoys through some of the most dangerous areas in Iraq. Airmen from the vehicle operations career field have driven more than 3.1 million miles, completed nearly 3,100 convoy missions and encountered more than 370 incidents such as ambushes, improvised explosive devices, and mortar and rocket-powered grenade attacks.

For their ability to adapt, the vehicle operations career field has been named the "2005 Team of the Year" by the Air Force Association. Each year, the association selects a specific enlisted career field for recognition, and the Air Force then chooses five Airmen who best represent that field.

This year's five representatives are:

• Master Sgt. Dennis Ross from Bolling Air Force Base, D.C.

• Tech. Sgt. Jason Hohenstreiter from Minot AFB, N.D.

• Staff Sgt. Amelia Solomon from Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England.

• Senior Airman Joshua Powell from Eielson AFB, Alaska.

• Senior Airman John Chege from Langley AFB, Va.

The team was honored in a May 17 ceremony. Each Airman was selected to represent the vehicle operations career field because of their technical expertise, leadership and inspiration to their co-workers.

The activities that earned each Airman his or her spot as a career-field representative spanned an entire year, and each Airman shares at least two things in common with another. First, they are deemed excellent performers by their supervisors and commanders; and second, they each participated in convoy operations while deployed supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Before participating in convoy operations, vehicle operations Airmen required additional training from Soldiers. That training, conducted at Fort Eustis, Va., and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., taught Airmen the skills they would need to protect supply lines.

"Initially, we had minimal training in convoy operations," Sergeant Ross said. "But the training from the Army was very dedicated and hands-on. It included how to set up a convoy, the tactics, techniques and procedures associated with a convoy, and how to handle different threats and different enemy contacts."

The Soldiers also taught Airmen how to handle weapons that many had never seen before.

"Of course there were the crew-served weapons," Sergeant Ross said. "That is something that none of us had experienced in this career field."

Vehicle operations Airmen were trained to use, among other things, a .50-caliber M-2 heavy machine gun, an M-240B medium machine gun, an M-249 squad automatic weapon and an MK-19 grenade launcher.

Airman Powell said he thought he would never use these kinds of weapons, or even participate in the kind of battle that would require them when he signed up for the Air Force.

"Yes, it's all part of a job you kind of expect, but never think you'll actually have to go," he said. “I can say my first deployment was a great learning experience, and it makes you realize what you have at home. It makes you appreciate life a lot more."

Airman Powell took some fire in Iraq and gave some back to those trying to stop his convoy as it traveled through Fallujah. His role that day, as a gunner in a gun truck, was to help protect the rest of the trucks in the convoy. The convoy -- one that usually takes two days to complete -- had stopped in Fallujah for the night. The team got hit as they were preparing to leave the city.

"We were fired upon several times while I was in Iraq," he said. "But the one I remember well, the biggest one, was in Fallujah. We were in that firefight for 10 to 15 minutes. They started to fire on the front of the convoy to start with. I fired back. I was on the M-249 that night, the squad automatic weapon. I put a lot of lead downrange."

With Airman Powell and others manning the guns, the convoy was able to leave the city and continue its mission. He said the experience let him know the importance of his role there.

"There is more adrenaline running through your body than you can ever imagine, knowing you have got this gun and there are probably 80 people in the convoy that rely on your support," he said.

Sergeant Solomon also provided support to the convoy as a driver and as a dispatcher of about 1,240 gun trucks for more than 320 tactical convoys. She drove more than 50,000 miles through hostile territory, moving more than 86 million pounds of cargo.

On one of those trips, while serving as truck commander, Sergeant Solomon encountered the very threat that makes convoy operators shudder -- and keeps parents awake at night.

"We had picked up some fuel and were going back north to deliver it," she said. "One of the maps said the road was blocked so we had to take another route. We got hit there. An improvised explosive device went off a couple of trucks ahead. My truck ended up rear-ending a fuel tanker and my head went through the windshield."

Sergeant Solomon suffered fractures in her upper body and was eventually taken to Germany for treatment. Nevertheless, she returned to Iraq and continued to serve her tour. She earned a Purple Heart for her injuries. She is back in the U.S. now, but she said she will serve in Iraq again if she has to.

"I never thought I'd be on the road in Iraq driving convoys, or even in Iraq at all," she said. "But yes, I'd go back."

Airman Chege, a native of Nairobi, Kenya, had lived in the United States for about year before enlisting in the Air Force. He had been in the Air Force a little more than a year when he was deployed to Iraq to participate in convoy operations there. While on a mission to Forward Operating Base Speicher, his vehicle hit a roadside bomb that wounded him and the vehicle commander, and killed the gunner.

"On that day we had to wake up early to head out," Airman Chege said. "We left about 4 a.m. We had problems on the road because we had some old trucks that broke down, and that really slowed us down."

Airman Chege said that at about 9 a.m. they decided the convoy needed to take a detour to avoid going into a town that was particularly difficult to travel through. The detour itself was also known to be somewhat dangerous.

"On that day, they put an IED right before the detour," he said. "It exploded behind the rear tire of my truck."

Shrapnel from the explosion pierced Airman Chege's body from behind and came out through the front of his body. The explosion killed the vehicle gunner, Staff Sgt. Dustin Peters, and the driver of the vehicle behind Airman Chege.

Despite his injuries, Airman Chege was able to return gunfire on a suspected suicide bomber and eliminate further threat to the convoy. After that, he had to leave the truck.

"I was able to make a couple of steps and then I collapsed," he said.

Airman Chege was awarded a Purple Heart for his injury and an Army Commendation Medal for his actions.

More than 4,000 Airmen make up the vehicle operations career field, including active duty, guardsmen and reservists. Since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, two of those Airmen have been killed while performing convoy operations in Iraq.

Sergeant Peters, 25, of El Dorado, Kan., was killed July 11 while serving in Iraq.

Airman 1st Class Carl Anderson Jr., 21, of Georgetown, S.C., was killed Aug. 29 near Mosul, Iraq, by a roadside bomb.

The five Airmen chosen to represent the career field were selected for their excellence while deployed and at home. But Sergeant Hohenstreiter said the entire career field, including those two that made the ultimate sacrifice in performance of their duties, is responsible for being chosen as team of the year.

"Not only did vehicle operations perform well with the mission in Iraq, but there was no faltering back stateside either," he said. "We maintained our steady-state commitments while about a quarter of our career field went to Iraq to assist in the Army mission. Yet our mission back in the states still succeeded -- the parts were still delivered -- and there was no faltering."

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