Profile: Maintenance under fire

Hot, noisy, stressful and sometimes combative, some technicians may describe their working conditions as a war zone. When Sgt. 1st Class Edward Luper describes the conditions in which he worked earlier this year, he actually is describing a war zone.

The maintenance director for Jerome, Idaho-based Arlo G. Lott Trucking, Luper served in war-torn Iraq from April 2006 to April 2007. Stateside, the 44-year-old father of three oversees a maintenance staff of 12 people, serving a fleet of 125 company trucks and 40 owner-operators. His duties, though, in Iraq were far larger: He was the second in command of the 1016th, consisting of 170 people.

The 1016th, based in Pocatello, Idaho, was tasked with mainly hauling diesel in 5,000-gallon tankers before private contractor KBR took over much of that duty. The unit drove M915s, basically armor-plated Freightliners, and later the massive Heavy Equipment Transports – the largest trucks in the Army’s inventory, generally used to haul M1A1 Abrams tanks. With the M915s, the group hauled construction equipment and supplies and bottled water. Each haul required about 30 troops, says Capt. Chris Warner, who led the unit. Most convoys were limited to 15 to 20 trucks so as not to become an inviting target, Warner says. The maximum speed was roughly 45 mph.

The group was stationed at Camp Bucca, near the Kuwaiti border just outside An Nasiriyah, near where Pvt. Jessica Lynch was captured in 2003. It hauled only at night, mostly north to the huge Camp Anaconda in Balad, and into and around Baghdad.

Luper’s hands were full as operations manager, overseeing administrative duties, discipline and ensuring that personal problems that soldiers faced were resolved as best they could be, to keep each man or woman on task. “I went out a few times, not as many as I wanted to,” he says. “I would have liked to have gone out on every mission.”

The desert’s absolute darkness made it difficult for Luper and his fellow troops to see around and ahead of his convoy and keep an eye open for bombs or other threats. “If you saw something out of the view of the headlights, you can’t turn around and take another look to check it out,” Luper says.

While Luper never came under direct fire, others in the 1016th did. Bullets from small-arms fire penetrated engines, but no one in the unit was hit, Warner says. The unit also managed to avoid direct hits from IEDs, although members saw other units’ vehicles blown up.

All convoys were escorted by several gun trucks, usually Humvees, but “I’d say we were very damn lucky,” Luper says. Those gunners were the main target of any sniper or small-arms fire attacks. The diesel trucks, if hit, could have proved a deadly target. “You would be driving a real fireball if they got hit by an IED right to the truck, it would take it out and if the diesel were to flow out, then it would burn,” he adds.

Of 170 troops in the unit, 126 were drivers. Those drivers received training from the U.S. Army as most had never driven a truck before.

Upkeep on trucks was harsh in the desert environment, Luper says. “The mechanics were working on air conditioning, and the roads are bad over there so there was a lot of suspension work.” On older 12,000-lb. M915 trucks, the cabs would sometimes crack from the weight of added armor on top of unpaved roads. Jim Fenske, program manager of U.S. military sales for Freightliner, says such cracking happened on older trucks.

During the past two years, new M915 and additional military trucks have been built with increased axle, front-end, tire and brake capacity. Older 12,000 pounders are being retrofitted with larger capacity field kits as well, Fenske says.

Trucks were modified out in the field in other ways, such as adding exterior lights to improve side visibility, Luper says. The unit also installed electronic systems to create a “bubble” around the trucks to defeat infrared or laser-operated weapons.

All trucks went through pre- and post-trip maintenance at base for “at least an hour each day,” Warner says. When replacement parts weren’t available, “you either didn’t run, or you limped them along and repaired them the best you could,” Luper says.

Tires quickly wore out because of road hazards and the rough terrain. “We got a lot of experience changing tires,” Luper says. “We had a recovery vehicle with us that had spare tires, and if we were in an area that wasn’t as dangerous, we’d usually just change the tire there.” Otherwise, trucks rode on the flat to the nearest base.

At least one mechanic went on every haul. If an engine failed and couldn’t be fixed within 15 minutes, the truck was towed, Luper says. Much longer, and the likelihood of inviting an enemy attack loomed larger. Vehicles never were left behind, even if coolant hoses had been bullet-riddled. Doing otherwise would invite their being outright stolen or stripped of parts, Warner says.

Luper says the most memorable day during his year in Iraq did not include a gun battle, or any other danger. It was Christmas Day, and he was away from his wife and three children. “That day was sad and lonely, yet happy as you re-live memories from the past. Being alone really makes you appreciate what we have here at home,” he says.

Luper started his truck maintenance career in 1984 at a Kenworth dealership in Jerome, located in Idaho’s farming country. He began as a parts runner, ferreting parts for the workers in the shop from the dealership’s warehouse. From there, he moved onto outside sales and also worked on the maintenance floor. In 1988, he started work for Lott. Now overseeing 12 workers as shop foreman, his crew handles any repairs not covered under a truck’s warranty. “I just like trucks and the people,” Luper says of his love for the job. “There are a lot of good people in trucking. It’s a tight community and even though you are competing with each other, you still help each other out.”

Andy Lott, vice president at Arlo G. Lott Trucking, says Luper was greatly missed during his year of service in Iraq. “Eddie is a great part of what we do here,” he says. “I didn’t replace him when he was gone, everyone had to chip in and cover for him.”

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