Stuck in sand, lost in Iraq: tale of a desert supply convoy

Lt. Robinson and her unit fight quicksand of Iraqi desert to move supplies to the front.

It was 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon, somewhere in the desolate expanse of southern Iraq, and Lt. Judith Robinson was struggling to lead a convoy of 2,300-pound tractor-trailers through a quicksand of soft desert trails.

"Come on, speed up! Gun it!" she shouted, steering her Humvee gun truck like a cowboy herding cattle. Firm ground proved elusive. The trucks sank in again, furiously spinning sand.

With a desert-camouflage bandana under her helmet and an unflappable personality, Lieutenant Robinson of the 3rd Infantry Division was fighting a battle that underscores how treacherous desert warfare can be. While US ground forces seem to be marching inexorably toward Baghdad, some troops are encountering stiffening resistance and others, like Robinson's unit, are confronting a more amorphous foe - the terrain.

Her unit is responsible for moving supplies to the front, without which no combat force could long survive. As the old saying goes, "Tactics are for amateurs, logistics are for professionals." Robinson and the 1,150 men and women of the 703rd Battalion are some of those unsung pros - and all their skill and patience was tested during this 48-hour stretch.

As the sun rose a cold white over the desert Friday, her convoy of fuelers, medical vans, and huge tractor-trailers moved north. It crossed the freshly cut 12-foot berm into Iraq a few hours after the first Army combat forces, rushing to "push" them fuel, food, water, and equipment.

Robinson, a Gulf War veteran from St. Louis, rode into enemy territory with the mentality that Saddam Hussein has to go, and her job is to help that happen. Tossing sunflower-seed shells out of the window, she reacted to the war's start with a mere shrug.

As the convoy rumbled into the desert in a cloud of dust, the early hours seemed to confirm for Robinson the meaning of her mission, "Iraqi Freedom." In the first contacts with Iraqis, Bedouin sheep and camel herders emerged from their tents. One robed nomad stood by the road, waving and smiling. Another man and boy approached, asking for food and medicine. US leaflets littered the ground.

"This is liberation," said Robinson's commander, Lt. Col. Steve Lyons.

But soon, the trouble with terrain began. Outside one nomad encampment several miles inside the border, the first heavy-equipment transporter (HET), named Chief, got stuck in soft sand.

"Rock Six, this is Rock Five, over," Robinson radioed her company commander, Capt. Kenneth Letcher, using the 3rd Infantry Division's World War I nickname, "Rock of the Marne." "We've got a HET down." Then another sank in, and another.

For the next eight hours, until 2 a.m., as the main convoy moved forward, Robinson and a handful of others stayed behind to dig out the HETs, which transport everything from M1A1 tanks to giant forklifts. They dug with shovels. They chained the HETs to a recovery vehicle, but the chain snapped. Finally, a tracked vehicle with a metal line dragged out the last HET.

"Okay, posse up!" a sergeant shouted. In the dark, with Captain Letcher and Robinson leading, the convoy inched forward. But within a mile, two HETs dug in.

"Who reconned this route?" Robinson muttered in exasperation. At about 4 a.m. Saturday, after repeated recoveries, she fell asleep sitting up. Two hours later, Letcher woke her with orders to hit the road. Tired, with dust coating her hair, face, and clothing, Robinson ate a few bites of a cold ready-to-eat meal and retied her bandanna. Women make up a third of her battalion. Like most of them, she is stocky and strong. She hops atop her Humvee to load the .50-caliber machine gun and tells the HET drivers to mount their trucks.

By midday Saturday, though, the HETs are badly stuck again. Letcher has long ago lost radio contact with the rest of the battalion and does not know where it is. Isolated, he has no source of information on the progress of the war or enemy locations. At one point, a reporter's satellite phone seems the best link to the outside world.

The worst nightmare of Colonel Lyons, the logistics commander, seems to be unfolding - that he loses track of supply convoys spread across the battle space. Frustrated and exhausted, Robinson and others briefly amuse themselves by playing with an iguana and watching a large dung beetle roll its prize across the sand.

"We don't get much glory," says Sgt. 1st Class Theodore Burnside, whose wrecking crew has been working around the clock. "Those guys up front wouldn't survive without the beans and bullets," he says, summing up the logistics soldiers' view. "I tell my guys, 'Every time you turn a wrench or pull a vehicle out is important, because someone up front is depending on you.'"

In a last-ditch effort to move, Letcher arranges the HETs in a wedge formation. Using a flickering civilian GPS device, Robinson leads them in an emotional charge to firmer ground. Later that night, he sends Robinson out with two Humvees, guns fully loaded, to recon a new route on a hardball road that runs past an airport he isn't sure has been secured. She comes back with good news: No bad guys in sight.

At daybreak the next morning, in a Humvee with a broken speedometer and a small American flag, Robinson leads the convoy of eight HETs onto the paved road to a major highway. But at the highway entrance, Marines block the convoy, saying it is reserved for a Marine combat division.

Cracking a sunflower seed, Robinson and the trucks head off on a dirt access road. "Yeehaw!" she shouts, navigating around a ditch. "Let's go, baby, let's go!"

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