Instead of functioning as traditional fuel handlers, many Army petroleum supply specialists in Afghanistan operate as vehicle gunners and drivers for convoys. Insurgents ambushed a convoy of the 286th Combat Support Sustainment Battalion (CSSB) on 29 July, 2009, in one of the largest complex attacks in Afghanistan since 2003.
The 286th CSSB, a non-combat arms element of the Joint Sustainment Command–Afghanistan, moves supplies and equipment by convoy to forward operating bases, fire bases and combat outposts throughout southern Afghanistan.
The convoy was traveling through mountains on 27 July, crossing between Oruzgan and Kandahar provinces, when Soldiers in the fifth mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle (MRAP), call-sign Gun Truck Five, noticed an Afghan male at the side of the road, filming the convoy with a cell phone. They seized the cell phone, which contained footage of insurgents planting roadside bombs.
Two days later, their convoy of 22 vehicles traveled back through the area, and was passing an Afghan National Army (ANA) checkpoint when an ANA soldier flagged down their lead MRAP, Gun Truck One. “He was trying to stop us,” said Spc. Dana S. Osborne, the Gun Truck One driver from Lake Butler, Fla. “When he stopped us, he pointed to the front of him and made a hand motion of shooting, you know, in front of us.”
After the convoy halted, Gun Truck Three drove to the front so their interpreter could speak with the ANA soldier. According to the soldier, ANA forces had been battling a battalion-size element of Taliban fighters for hours by a nearby village. The convoy’s air support, OH-58 Kiowa helicopters, scouted the hillside but could not locate the enemy. The ANA soldier indicated the attack was geared toward ANA, not American, forces.
“We all agreed to continue the mission, because that was our mission,” said Pfc. Jose L. Garcia, the Gun Truck Two gunner from Chicago, Ill.
HOLES IN THE GROUND AHEAD
Since the confiscated cell phone indicated roadside bombs in the area, the Kiowas flew over their proposed route and noticed possible improvised explosive device (IED) locations. The convoy proceeded cautiously.
Pfc. Jeffrey Wiedel, the Gun Truck One gunner from Killeen, Texas, noticed several holes in the ground ahead, and the convoy moved forward, carefully avoiding the possible IEDs. Soldiers noticed a green cell phone lying in one of the holes.
“We knew it was some kind of decoy or something like that,” said Garcia. “Because they know we have [electronic countermeasures].”
Most military vehicles carry ECM devices to jam radio signals that detonate explosives from a distance. Traditionally, cell phones are used to detonate remote-controlled IEDs.
HIT BY ROADSIDE BOMBS
Soon after, a military cargo truck, called a palletized loading system (PLS), and two wreckers in the rear hit roadside bombs almost simultaneously. The convoy began to receive small-arms and shoulder-fired antitank rocket (RPG) fire. Since the damaged trucks could still move under their own power, the convoy continued, pushing through the immediate area of attack, or kill zone.
Gun Truck One rounded a bend and arrived at a choke point surrounded by mountains to its right and front. On the left, enemy fire hit them from woods in a dry creek bed.
“At that point, Wiedel, the gunner for Gun Truck One, pointed at something up in the mountains,” said Garcia. “I was looking at him, he turned his turret to face forward, and that’s when they blew up.”
The explosion hurled Gun Truck One about 15 feet to the side of the trail, blew their weapons out of the gun turret and completely disabled the vehicle and all communication systems.
TWO AND FOUR LAY DOWN SUPPRESSIVE FIRE
Gun Trucks Two and Four surrounded the disabled vehicle and laid down suppressive fire, while Gun Truck Three rescued the Soldiers. The injured Soldiers exited Gun Truck One through the driver’s door, the only operable door. A medical evacuation (medevac) helicopter with Air Force pararescuemen (PJs) arrived shortly after to evacuate Osborne, Wiedel and Sgt. Mario E. Saenz, the Gun Truck One truck commander (TC). Although in pain, the Gun Truck One assistant gunner, Spc. Alfredo Rodriguez, remained with the convoy to fight the enemy.
“We had rounds flying right by our heads and by our feet—maybe six inches off, everywhere—when we were running to the medevac helicopter, and it’s a miracle that nobody got killed,” said Wiedel. “It’s a miracle.”
Osborne and Wiedel had both removed their body armor because of possible injuries. The convoy commander and Gun Truck Three’s TC from Vallejo, Calif., 1st Lt. Tamara A. Da Silva, along with Gun Truck Three’s driver, Pfc. Devin Chapman, shielded Osborne and Wiedel with their bodies as they ran to the helicopter.
The Gun Truck Three assistant gunner from Osceola, Iowa, Cpl. Robert W. Lewis, carried Saenz.
THE SMELL OF FUEL
As the helicopter took off, its occupants smelled fuel. The enemy’s small arms fire had caused a leak that forced the helicopter to land nearby, said Wiedel.
Still taking enemy contact, the PJs exited the medevac helicopter, created a perimeter around the helicopter and laid down suppressive fire. Although wounded, Wiedel asked the pilot for a pistol and joined the PJs while they waited for another helicopter.
Available aircraft at Kandahar Airfield deployed to aid the immobile helicopter. Aircraft such as Kiowa, Apache and Black Hawk helicopters constantly circled the area above the disabled medevac helicopter, targeting the enemy, said Da Silva.
“You could look up into the sky and see Kiowa pilots in their [physical training uniforms] and their helmet,” Wiedel said.
TRUCK COMMANDER INTO THE AIR
Meanwhile, at Da Silva’s order to not leave anyone behind, Gun Truck Two and Five escorted cargo trucks through the two-mile long kill zone, taking small-arms fire the entire time. One PLS first drove over an IED, and then was hit by a mortar round that ejected the TC into the air.
On their third escort trip, Gun Truck Two pulled to the right side of the road so the PLS trucks could drive past them and up the hill. “The enemy knew our [tactics, techniques and procedures],” Da Silva said. “They knew what we were going to do.”
When it pulled over, Gun Truck Two detonated an IED. Da Silva believes insurgents observed the convoy doing this procedure at the same location two days previously.
TWO WAS CUT OFF
Around a bend in the road, Gun Truck Two was cut off from the rest of the convoy. A Kiowa helicopter periodically flew over the gun truck, firing Hellfire missiles on insurgents that approached the stranded vehicle.
Because of constant gunfire, the Soldiers of Gun Truck Two ran out of weapon lubricant and improvised by using shampoo and lotion out of a hygiene kit to lubricate their .50-caliber machine gun.
At one point, a PLS truck drove around the bend behind them just as a militant fired an RPG rocket. “They hit the trailer,” said Garcia, “But the RPG was aimed at us—the disabled vehicle.”
SEVEN TO THE RESCUE
After about 90 minutes, Gun Truck Seven came around the bend to aid Gun Truck Two but stopped 100 meters away, since a secondary IED was spotted near the disabled gun truck. The Soldiers in Gun Truck Two collected sensitive items and ran to Gun Truck Seven.
Gun Truck Five continued to move PLS trucks out of the kill zone. Eventually, the cargo trucks with their long trailers could not fit through the narrow and curved road. Too many disabled vehicles blocked the way. One by one, Gun Truck Five pulled next to each PLS on the contact side, so each driver could dismount and unhitch his trailer.
“[Gun Truck Five] had bullet holes everywhere,” said Da Silva. “I don’t think I’ll ever see that truck again.”
TWO-MILE KILL ZONE
At the end of the two-mile kill zone, the convoy had established a green zone, an area to regroup. When the enemy started to flank the green zone, an F-18 Hornet dropped two 500-pound bombs on the mountainside.
“People can say, ‘You should have done this. You should have done that’,” said Da Silva. “At the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, all our Soldiers are alive.”
During the nine-hour battle, insurgents fired approximately 14 RPG rockets, detonated multiple roadside bombs, and pummeled the convoy with small-arms fire. Some insurgents used armor-piercing rounds. Militants fired machine guns and assault rifles from nearby homes, the tree line or from dug-in positions on the mountain ridges. Although the militants were well-covered, many Soldiers recalled the enemy had been close enough to see faces.
After the battle, several Soldiers reported seeing doors in the hillside and speculated hollowed areas in the ground may have held weapon and ammunition caches.
STILL DOING THEIR JOB
Five Soldiers were evacuated that day and one Soldier the following day to receive medical attention.
Thus far, three of them have received the Purple Heart Medal.
Five MRAPs were disabled and ten PLS trucks had been hit by mortar rounds. One RPG rocket hit a PLS and two RPG rockets hit at the rear of Gun Truck Four, taking out its rear tires with shrapnel. Fortunately for the convoy, several IEDs never detonated.
Although they are non-combat arms Soldiers, the fuel handlers of the 286th CSSB reacted quickly and successfully battled the militants.
“The way the war is going in Afghanistan,” said Lewis, “at any time, you have to be a 360-degree Soldier.”
Soldiers of the 286th CSSB may be more cautious now when they roll out on a convoy, but they continue to do their jobs and complete their vital mission of delivering troops throughout Afghanistan with equipment and supplies necessary to the fight.