Making US forces run smoothly, one engine at a time

US Army specialists scrounge, beg, and borrow to keep Humvees running

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Not all the key personnel in a war have their finger on a trigger.

Some of the most valuable members of the 2nd Squadron of the US Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment are soldiers who wield wrenches or clipboards rather than M-16s. And their contribution to the overall mission of the regiment in Iraq is huge.

Chief Warrant Officer Gerry Tucker of Wewahitchka, Fla., and Sgt. 1st Class Matt VanAusdoll of Cutler, Ill., both Army mechanics, are among that group of soldiers who toil outside the crucible of combat, but whose efforts are essential to making sure US forces are ready and able to carry out their mission.

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So is Staff Sgt. Harold Trent of Whitesburg, Ky., the squadron's support platoon sergeant.

"I'm the scrounger," says Sergeant Trent, explaining his responsibilities. It is a job description that might look unusual on a résumé, but in a war zone, guys like Trent are worth their weight in gold.

Scrounging isn't all he does. He also begs, borrows, steals (sort of), and trades. He does whatever he needs to do to keep the beans and bullets flowing to the 2nd Squadron.

"Sergeant Trent can make things happen," says Lt. Jay Chapman of Louisville, Ky. "The squadron commander says support and maintenance is the engine room in the ship. I kind of think of Sergeant Trent as the fire in the furnace." He adds, "Sergeant Trent has made Humvee engines appear where there were none."

Pulling engines out of thin air is a trick CWO Tucker performs as well. He did it shortly after the squadron entered Iraq in early April. The Humvee driven by Sgt. Donald Flynn of Eagle Troop developed engine trouble five miles inside Iraq. The vehicle was towed to an air base where the squadron's convoy stopped for the night.

Near the base, Tucker noticed the remains of an abandoned Humvee. It had taken a direct hit in the windshield from a rocket-propelled grenade. But the engine was still good.

From 7 p.m. to 5:40 a.m., Tucker and several other mechanics worked nonstop to lift the engine out of the destroyed Humvee and install it in Sergeant Flynn's.

As Tucker got some well-deserved sleep, the convoy - including Flynn's vehicle - pulled out of the air base and headed north as scheduled. They were only 10 minutes later than planned.

But as they rolled north, it became obvious that the aging fleet of Humvees (average assembly date 1984 - the first year of production) was not holding up well. The combination of nonstop driving, loads of gear and ammunition twice the recommended cargo weight limit, and wind-driven sand were doing what the Iraqis couldn't - slowing the American advance.

"When we got to the Middle East, there was so much broken stuff that we [the mechanics] decided to take it out of everybody's hands and put it in ours," says Sergeant VanAusdoll.

At Najaf, the mechanics located three engine repair pits. During the next three days, they ran every vehicle across the pits, performing bumper-to-bumper inspections.

The decision was crucial. "If they had not done this, three-quarters of the regiment would not be rolling," says Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Mitchell of Iowa Park, Texas.

Army standard is for 90 percent of a unit's vehicles to be available, says Capt. John Cooney of Wareham, Mass., the squadron maintenance officer. Since arriving in Iraq, the 2nd Squadron has been at 100 percent availability, meaning no vehicle is in the shop longer than a day, Captain Cooney says.

What made the squadron support staff's job particularly difficult was that the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment wasn't scheduled to arrive in the Middle East until mid-May. But after Iraqi attacks on US supply lines threatened to stall the advance during the first two weeks of the war, commanding generals decided to speed up part of the regiment's deployment.

The 2nd squadron was given roughly a week to pack and depart Fort Polk, La., for Kuwait. They made the trip in late March with their fully loaded Humvees rolled into C-5 and C-17 military transport planes.

What their quick departure and arrival meant for Trent, the support sergeant, was that the squadron was now operating outside the Army's resupply system. Trent had to find a way to resupply the squadron without any of the usual support.

"I had to pretty much stand on this major's desk who said he's not going to feed us," says Trent. "Finally the major said, 'Please, get this staff sergeant out of my office.' "

Trent had won. The troops got the food they needed.

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