Spc Jamaal Uzziel, gunner for Wolfpack 1, reading The Stars and Stripes on the rear deck of the MRAP before a mission.
Sgt Baum, Foreground and Spc Miller-Cobb inside the cab of Wolfpack 1 during a night mission.
The MRAP....Best place to be in a convoy!
Running convoys in Iraq is dangerous business. Our job is made even more dangerous by long hours of tedious driving through featureless desert, a political climate and policy that has shifted from combat operations to winning hearts and minds, and a growing insurgency that is slowly gaining momentum again in Iraq. Recent restrictions placed on US forces by a fledgling Iraqi military that is all too anxious to flex its new muscle, prohibits any daytime convoy operations at all. That's all well and good, unless you're smack dab in the middle of a 4 mile long lumbering steel column creeping along at slightly more than a turtles pace, and lit up like Times Square on New Years Eve. None of this, though equals the danger and loneliness of being on point, over 300 meters in front of the rest of the column, waiting to hit an IED or trigger an ambush.
That's the sole job and responsibility of the MRAP and her three man crew. The MRAP: Mine Resistant Ambush Protected. A monstrous, 35,000 pound up-armored fighting vehicle specifically designed to survive IED attacks and ambushes. MRAP crews have taken hits from IED's in both Iraq and Afghanistan that would have killed most any HUMVEE crew. Still, theirs is not an enviable job. Our MRAP, Wolfpack 1, is crewed by Sgt John Baum, (truck commander) Spc Tyler Miller-Cobb, (driver) and Spc Jamaal Uzziel (.50 gunner) all from Las Vegas, Nevada.
This is Sgt Baum's second tour. He served once before in Balad Iraq in 2003, Sgt Baum, 27, a former Semi-Pro football player for the Darmstadt Diamonds in Germany, is now a Customer Service Rep for Bank of America. Sgt Baum volunteered for the MRAP assignment. "I wanted to be on point and lead the convoy. It's the most challenging job out there", Sgt Baum said. "The downside of the MRAP, is that were the first ones to get hit in an ambush. The up-side is that I have confidence in my crew and the ability of my vehicle to take a hit". That confidence is not ill-placed. In June 2008, it was reported in USA TODAY that IED attacks and fatalities were down nearly 99%, in part due to the use of MRAP's on convoys and combat patrols. Comforting, unless you happen to fall into that remaining 1 percent.
Not all dangers facing the MRAP come from IED's and RPG's, however. The MRAP is incredibly top heavy. This makes vehicle rollovers a very real possibility. Additionally, 72 percent of the world's bridges, that's right 72 percent of the WORLD's bridges, cannot support the MRAP's tremendous bulk and weight! Iraq is not known for its superior bridge design. I've seen bridges in Iraq that I wouldn't ride a bicycle across! Likewise, Iraq's roadways are nothing to brag about. The soft shoulders of Iraqi roads will literally suck your vehicle into a rollover if your unlucky enough to veer into it in a panic maneuver. Having been through the MRAP rollover simulator in Kuwait, I can attest that I would not want to experience the helplessness and horror of being strapped inside a 35,000 pound rock tumbler as it careened down a hill and into a river. My experience in the simulator resulted in my getting caught in my harness, upside down and totally disoriented. Pinned against the roof under the weight of my body armor, I couldn't find the harness quick release. As all of my blood began to pool somewhere behind my eyeballs and the weight of my body armor pressed against my chest, I fumbled clumsily to find the quick release and almost passed out because I couldn't breathe. And that was just at half speed! It was an eerily eye-opening experience to see how quickly and easily it is to drown if your vehicle rolls over into a river as has happened to too many soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Spc Tyler Miller-Cobb, 25, a full time Admin Tech with the Nevada Army Guard's 1864th Transportation Company in Las Vegas, is Wolfpack 1's driver. Specialist Miller-Cobb and Sgt Baum have been friends together in the Army National Guard for two years. They met after they were both ordered to sweep rocks from a half mile long dirt track that was to be used in a Nevada Army National Guard Soldier of the Year competition. Once selected for the gun truck mission before deploying overseas, Spc Miller-Cobb naturally followed his friend and mentor and unquestionably agreed to be Sgt Baum's driver. Spc Miller-Cobb's biggest fear is the EFP (Explosively Formed Projectile), a sophisticated type of IED that strikes fear into the hearts of any gun truck crew. "It's nerve wracking when you're driving down the road," Spc Miller Cobb told me. "Everything looks like an IED to me. The worst part is not knowing which is just a pile of rocks or trash or which is an IED or maybe an EFP". If Spc Miller-Cobb is ever nervous or hesitant on a mission, he is yet to show it. Spc Miller-Cobb has an ever-present grin that makes you wonder what it is that he's so happy about all the time. Driving MRAP's on Iraqi roadways is a far cry from his previous jobs as a casino dealer in Las Vegas, or stock-broker. This is Spc Miller-Cobb's first tour overseas. "I wanted to earn the respect that wearing the uniform commands", he said. "I didn't want to go my whole career like some other soldiers and not serve in a war zone, but get the credit anyway that was earned by those who did." Spc Miller-Cobb added, "When people shake my hand at the airport and thank me for my service, I want to know that I've earned it".
The best view, and probably the most dangerous job in the convoy is the MRAP .50 gunner. Wolfpack 1's gunner, Spc Jamaal Uzziel, 27, sits nearly two stories high in an armored, electronically controlled turret. Spc Uzziel, an amateur songwriter and actor, hopes one day to be a successful music producer. He has been in the Nevada Army National Guard for 3 years. "It was never my intent to go overseas when I joined the Guard" he told me. Spc Uzziel said that as soon as he was called up to deploy, he didn't hesitate to heed the call to serve. "I made a commitment and I stuck with it. Soldiers never want to go to war, but it's like a marriage. If you commit, you need to follow through". Towering above the rest of the convoy, Spc Uzziel's biggest fear is "Failing my team". "Being the gunner", he said, "is like being the angel that flies watch over the rest of the convoy". Being the .50 gunner on an MRAP is no small responsibility. Almost certainly, Spc Uzziel will be the first to draw fire, and the first to have to identify an enemy hidden in darkness and return fire. When not continuously scanning in nearly all directions for tell-tale signs of hidden IED's , Spc Uzziel has to be especially conscious of the danger of sitting two stories high in a vehicle that just begs to roll-over on the slightest slope. Even with his gunners restraint harness securely fastened, Spc Uzziel has to be ready in the blink of an eye to pull himself inside the vehicle, when every instinct screams to hang on as the MRAP begins to roll, or suffer being crushed in his turret. "As an MRAP gunner, I have the lowest survivability percentage in the whole convoy. I have to remain diligent and aware of the situation at all times. I'm the first guy to get shot at in an ambush. But with time and experience, we learn to accept all that and become more confident".
A bank Customer Service Representative, an Admin Tech, and an amateur songwriter. These are just three of the thousands of Nevada's citizen soldiers who volunteered to put their lives on hold and answer their country's call to service. Three young men who volunteered to be the tip of the spear and place themselves in the line of fire so that we all can come home in one piece.