Dispatch from the 101st
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2003
WITH U.S. FORCES NEAR NAJAF, Iraq -- Chief Warrant Officer 2 Alfred G. Bermea had news, and it wasn't good: A ball joint on the back tire of a Humvee packed with ammo had blown.
Without a new one, the truck couldn't even be towed.
This was not the time for car trouble. A unit from the 3rd Infantry Division was clashing with Iraqi forces at an oil refinery less than a half-mile away, and the 55-vehicle convoy of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry of the 101st Airborne was about to drive right through it.
At the moment, the convoy was on the edge of a small town not far from Najaf, in an area of Iraq where the local men waving white flags from their pickup trucks may or may not mean peace.
"The word we got is that things are not going well up here," Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, said over the radio.
He told his men to keep driving if they take fire, then called Bermea on the radio. "How long will it take to fix?"
Bermea told him a half-hour to an hour.
"Negative," Hughes said. "Tell them to download it and lock it up."
Leaving a vehicle is always the last option, but at this time it was the safest. The men were stripping it of gear when Hughes called back less than five minutes later after receiving an update about the battle around him.
"Okay, it's not as bad as we thought," he said. "Fix it. Tell the chief to get hot."
The key to keeping the U.S. military machine running is the massive supply chain connecting the front lines to the fuel, food, ammunition and water the troops need to keep fighting.
In Iraq, as in most wars, the links of that chain are trucks moving in convoys, hundreds of them at any one time. U.S. troops also convoy to get to battle.
When convoys sputter, so does the war. Which is why Chief -- everyone calls Bermea "Chief" -- is so popular.
Bermea, 34, of San Angelo, Texas, is chief mechanic for the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry. His shop is a converted green Humvee with an air compressor lashed to the roof and bare-bones stock of supplies and parts.
His mission, he explained, is to "get the vehicles running and back into the fight."
By the time the Humvee lost the ball joint late Thursday, the 2nd Battalion already had been on the road for more than 50 hours, making a grueling GAC -- ground assault convoy -- from Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait to the outskirts of Najaf.
Most of the trip had been on rutted sand roads through the desert, in areas where ambushes have been common. At times the convoy hit 45 mph.
Army vehicles are tough, but the constant pounding and the grit had taken its toll.
Already Bermea and his crew had replaced the generator on a gun truck to keep it running, changed three fuel filters, swapped out a throttle cable, changed several tires, and fixed or faked a dozen other breaks and bangs. All on the fly, mostly in the dark, and all the while under the threat of ambush from Iraqi forces. Without the protection of most of the convoy.
It's tough work, and stressful, but Bermea doesn't show it. He has been in the Army for 15 years. "I love it," he said.
Replacing the ball joint on the rear right tire would be the most ambitious job yet, under some of the most harrowing conditions. As is usual when a vehicle breaks down, the main body of the convoy pulled ahead, leaving two gun trucks and Sgt. Maj. Richard Montcalm's Humvee to guard Bermea and his crew as they worked.
Bermea and two assistants, Cpl. Timothy Baugher, 24, and Pfc. Jason Starsick jacked up the Humvee while several soldiers spread out along the road, keeping watch for trouble.
The brick and adobe buildings in the town were outlined against a grove of palm trees, a break of green in the beige and brown landscape. Men in long dark robes quickly appeared on the roofs of those buildings to eye the American troops stopped there.
Two more peeked around a corner, pointing. They were about 500 yards away. Montcalm's driver, Spc. Patrick Scrogin, 24, of Moberley, Mo., spied them first.
"We got a couple of guys behind the building there, crouching and talking," he said.
Whenever one of the gunners turned his sights toward them, one of the men dropped to the ground and crawled away, only to reappear later with his friend.
After a few minutes, two women appeared and herded several children indoors.
Meanwhile, a bus approached from the north, followed by a sport utility vehicle flying a white flag. Both were full of men. When the convoy left Camp Pennsylvania, the soldiers had been warned that other American convoys had been attacked by men in civilian clothing waving white or U.S. flags.
Two more trucks drove past.
"Man, vehicles are pouring into this place," Scrogin said. "Come on, guys."
Bermea, Starsick and Baugher calmly but quickly worked on the ball joint, handing each other tools and helping to pry off the old one. When they finally freed it, they had to install the new one without the benefit of taking apart the gear hub, forcing Bermea to do it blind, in a tight spot.
The job took only 24 minutes. Lt. Col. Hughes was ecstatic when he got the report. Montcalm talked of nominating them for an award. Bermea just shrugged.
"We knew the sergeant major and the other guys were there to provide security," Bermea said, "and we knew there was a firefight going on, so there was a little speed to it."