Saving lives by keeping soldiers off the roads

LOGISTICAL SUPPORT AREA ANACONDA, IRAQ — Sgt. Kerwin Hurtado was so inspired to join the war on terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, that he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

He had to travel a long way to heed his calling. Joining the military meant Hurtado, 23, had to leave his home in Venezuela and immigrate to the United States. He earned full citizenship three years later while serving his first deployment in Iraq.

The Lakewood resident is now in his second deployment at Balad. But he's doing so as a full citizen and he is prouder than ever of the job he and his fellow soldiers are doing, he said.

“I don't feel like I'm defending somebody else's country now. I feel like I'm defending my own country, too,” Hurtado said.

In 2004, President Bush signed an order allowing all immigrants on active duty to apply for U.S. citizenship without waiting the usual three years and without having to be physically present in the United States to apply.

Hurtado is part of the Fort Lewis-based 21st Transfer Company, a unit whose job is to load pallets of important cargo and ship it off to other Army units around Iraq. The insurgency's tactics, such as the use of improvised explosive devices, have boosted the importance of these soldiers' roles. Their main priority is to get as much cargo as possible into helicopters and other aircraft to keep trucks from having to make treacherous convoy journeys through Iraq.

Airmen from the 62nd Airlift Wing and 446th Airlift Wing out of McChord Air Force Base also are part of that mission, loading aircraft with pallets of cargo and flying them to their final stop.

“Our mission is to keep trucks off the roads,” said Capt. Seth Owen, 31, of DuPont, the unit's commander.

About 170 soldiers are deployed with the unit, with 15 scattered at various other Forward Operating Bases.

The unit doesn't draw much attention and often goes unnoticed by soldiers in other units. Distributing huge amounts of supplies and equipment is a thankless job that gets little recognition from other soldiers until Transfer Company units make an error.

“When we screw up, they know we're here,” Owen said.

But soldiers in the transfer company see themselves as saving American lives in their work to reduce the need for ground convoys, which could be ambushed by insurgents.

The unit is sending twice as many pallets by air as it was last fall, Owen said.

They keep track of statistics showing how many soldiers they keep off the roads by finding room on aircraft for cargo. In March, for example, they moved about 12,000 pallets by air, reducing the need for 148 convoys, which would have required about 5,000 soldiers.

They spend their days doing hard labor in large supply yards with little shade from the relentless Iraqi sun.

The yards are known as the CRiSP, or Central Receiving and Shipping Point, which is lined with tanks and heavy equipment, and the FRP, or Forward Redistribution Point, which is where surplus materials are sent and reshipped to other units in need.

Acting 1st platoon Sgt. William Crawford, 33, of Yelm is on his second tour in Iraq. He misses his wife back home but said he takes pride in his work. He's also thankful for T-shirts and messages that civic groups have sent to the soldiers from home, he said.

His second deployment began in October.

His platoon has earned the nickname “Backbreaker Air” for the amount of cargo they've put on pallets and loaded aboard aircraft. Crawford serves as a liaison between the aircraft and the units needing their services.

His mission is to make sure no aircraft takes off with unused space.

“The infantry gets most of the headlines. But it's guys behind the scenes who keep them capable of carrying the fight to the enemy. There's a certain satisfaction to that,” Crawford said. “If you don't have good logistics, your campaign will be finished before it starts.”

Eleven others in the unit are like Hurtado, the soldier from Venezuela. They're working toward citizenship in the country they're risking their lives for. They come from places such as Panama and the Philippines.

Hurtado flew from Iraq to Seattle in 2004 to take his citizenship test. Now, he's married and has an 8-month-old daughter, which makes it harder to be so far from home.

But he has no doubt about his decision to join the Army.

“We're helping to rebuild this country, and that's something that no other country does,” he said.

Morale among these soldiers seems high, even though many are on their second deployment to Iraq.

Many say that's because of improvement in living conditions. In Balad, they have air-conditioned trailers and amenities available such as a gym, movie theater and four chow halls.

Many recalled sleeping in trucks or tents with no air conditioning during their first tours.

Occasionally, the 21st's soldiers have had to ride with convoys.

None has been injured, said Owen, the unit commander. Despite the daily mortar attacks that hit LSA Anaconda, working inside the wire seems relatively safe, he said.

“LSA is a pretty safe place,” Owen said. “But I couldn't convince my wife of that.”