Specialist Danielle Barnaba climbs into the cab of a five-ton delivery truck and heads out into the Kuwaiti desert, hauling everything from engine parts to toothpaste on her daily supply runs to Army combat brigades poised for war.
Bumping across the sand at 15 m.p.h., she spins the wheel and shifts the long gear stick like a veteran, although at 26 she admits the 10-wheeler she's driving could be older than she is. The slightly built, soft-spoken Texan took the Army job to test herself - and prove her independence. "I love my job," she says over the engine growl. "Most people look at me, and they don't think I could be a truck driver. That's what I love the most."
Specialist Barnaba is on the frontlines of a massive logistics operation essential to power US ground forces on a long push northward into Iraq. She and the 1,100 soldiers of the 703rd Main Support Battalion run the lifeline for the Third Infantry Division, the most heavily armored US ground unit now in place to invade Iraq. They're part of an unseen and unheralded element of the military that can be critical in determining the outcome of war - particularly in a hostile environment like the Iraqi desert. "Logistics is vital to cover that amount of ground quickly," says Maj. John Chadbourne, executive officer of the 703rd, pointing out possible routes on the more than 300-mile stretch from the Kuwaiti border to Baghdad. "Fuel is crucial."
Indeed, Major Chadbourne recalls his experience during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as a supply officer for the 1st Armored Division, when it advanced so swiftly that it outpaced refueling vehicles and basically ran out of gas. "The supply battalion XO [executive officer] grabbed a convoy of fuel tankers and led it up to the front lines so the tanks could run again in the morning," he says. This time, Chadbourne and others vow, will be different. "We are now planning for those kinds of speeds," he says.
The 3rd Infantry Division's tank and mechanized infantry units will carry with them several days' worth of food, water, fuel, ammunition, and other supplies. They will also carry kits to test Iraqi fuel sources and equipment that can draw water from local streams or rivers and purify it at a rate of 600 gallons an hour.
As a result, the combat forces won't be slowed down even if they outpace the supply lines by a few days. "We're self-sufficient," says Brig. Gen. Louis "Bill" Weber, the 3rd Infantry's assistant commander.
Soldiers engaged in logistical support such as Barnaba do much more than haul basics such as food, fuel, and water, however. The 703rd battalion mans a fleet of two dozen huge "HET" trucks that can transport tanks or bring heavy engineering equipment such as bridge parts to the front lines. In addition, it handles medical evacuation and treatment for troops, as well as maintenance for everything from tanks to radios. One of the companies performs chemical and biological weapons detection and decontamination, and also produces smoke to obscure ground movements at key junctures such as river crossings.
And although troops like Barnaba are often the unsung heroes of military campaigns, they work hard and face risks in much the same way as those in combat. Scanning the parched, wind-swept horizon for signs of the next sandstorm, Barnaba says the weather and terrain are her biggest enemies. She already knows what it is like to get caught in the blinding ocher swirl of dust and wind.
"One night I was in a convoy of five vehicles and a sandstorm kicked up and we got lost," says Barnaba, who arrived in Kuwait in January. "When you start to hit grass you know you are going the wrong way." Fortunately, the convoy stumbled upon another camp and got its bearings.
LOSING convoys, which often travel in darkness on unfamiliar roads, is the nightmare that most worries 703rd battalion commander Lt. Col. Steve Lyons. "My biggest challenge, because my troops are distributed throughout the battle space, is to know where all our people and assets are," he says. Just last week, Colonel Lyons secured a satellite-based system to help him track convoys, but received only enough devices to install on seven out of some 400 vehicles.
Convoys running supply lines are often protected only by gun trucks mounted with 50-calibre machine guns as well as individual soldiers. If attacked, the drivers are trained to turn outward to make a herringbone formation and then defend themselves.
Still, Barnaba says her faith in God helps her overcome any fears. "I don't have all the worries about getting gassed or nuked that everyone tends to have," she says. "I know I'm going home."
As she works 11- and 12-hour days, seven days a week, rumbling through the monotonous landscape of sand and sky, Barnaba stays firmly grounded in who she is and where she is going. "I'm thankful for the choices I have, for the respect I get as a woman from my fellow soldiers," she says after dropping off her last load of the day. In this moment before war, she says she plans to reenlist in the Army next year.