SSG Jake Roberts, Squad Leader, 1864th Gun Truck Company
Deploying to a combat zone for the very first time can be a life changing event for anyone. It can be even more so when you’re deploying to theatre for the third time, but as a newly promoted Staff Sergeant with new responsibilities and a dozen or more soldiers suddenly dependent on you for leadership and guidance. Likewise, suddenly being thrust into the unenviable position of having these same soldiers lives in your hands, and doing a job you’ve never done before, can seem like an insurmountable task to the best of them. How does a man just 27 years of age confront such responsibility for the first time? I had a chance to talk to Staff Sergeant Jake Roberts about such an assignment.
Staff Sergeant Roberts, a Carson City, Nevada native, is currently deployed as an Escort Commander with the 1864th Gun Truck Company, Nevada Army National Guard, stationed out of Las Vegas, Nevada. He is a mere 4 months into his 12 month tour. In his civilian life, Staff Sergeant Roberts works full time for the Nevada Army National Guard, and also works part time for the Douglas County, Nevada Juvenile Detention Division. In his spare time, Staff Sergeant Roberts, like any Northern Nevadan, loves to take advantage of the outdoor beauty of our region and enjoys, fishing camping and snow boarding.
Although new to the position of Squad Leader, Staff Sergeant Roberts is not new to combat. During his first deployment to Iraq in May 2005, Staff Sergeant Roberts was assigned as a .50 gunner. But on this day, he had agreed to let his Truck Commander ride in the turret while he rode inside the humvee. His convoy was escorting several trucks to Tal Afar, Iraq when one of the third country national trucks was suddenly hit by an IED. “Our Bradley (armored) escort stopped in it’s tracks which stopped the entire convoy”, Staff Sergeant Roberts told me. “It was then that we were ambushed with concentrated small arms fire. I got out to return fire when I suddenly started receiving small arms fire from a house behind me”. Staff Sergeant Roberts was nearly struck by several rounds before the gunner was able to return fire from the turret, and destroyed the house and the insurgents inside it.
Staff Sergeant Roberts is not quite half way through what is now his third tour since the war began, yet this is his first real leadership assignment, having been promoted from the rank of Sergeant while still training at Camp Atterbury, Indiana in April 2009. Speaking for the first time about the pressures of leadership, he said of being promoted, “Well at first it is a great feeling of accomplishment and success, then after that settles in for a little bit you start to think about how will you do as a squad leader, what type of leader am I or should I be? It sinks in that there is going to be a lot of pressure on you from now on”!
Staff Sergeant Roberts volunteered for this deployment after being told by his commander in Reno that the 1864th Transportation Company would be deploying and was in need of good NCO’s. He knew then that the job that lay ahead would be unlike any before. “Considering that during my first deployment to Iraq in 2004 I was a private, I basically was at the bottom of the totem pole. I was a gunner throughout my deployment so I was never really in charge of anything. This time around I am in charge of 14 soldiers, I’ve personally signed for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and am in charge of the security element when we go out on convoy. If our convoy is attacked then it’s ultimately up to me to decide our next plan of action; do we have the ability and justification to engage or not, do we need to call for medevac to evacuate our wounded”?
After being promoted, Staff Sergeant Roberts found that his world and his role in it had suddenly changed. He was now a squad leader, a role he had never assumed before. There’s a vast polar difference between having a two man crew under you in a gun truck and suddenly having to account for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of government equipment and 14 other lives. To prepare himself, Staff Sergeant Roberts looked to other senior NCO’s who had been there; leaders who had influenced him. “I talked with some of my former Squad Leaders and platoon sergeants to get a feel on some key areas I would need to focus on to be successful. I also took the good qualities from them and said to myself, that’s how I want to be and then added some of my own. I think it’s important for a leader to know his troops inside and out and know that because of his example, that his soldiers will have the confidence in him necessary to follow him without question“.
A good leader also knows his weaknesses. Staff Sergeant Roberts stepped up to the challenge and confronted his own head-on. “My number one fear was, would I be able to handle this task that lies ahead of me? I knew I had the experience but was it going to be enough? After our final training mission at Camp Atterbury before deploying overseas, I felt much more confident. We had completed our final convoy escort training mission and had survived several intense complex ambushes. I saw how our squad came together and how we just clicked as one team. It was then that I knew I was going to be ok”.
We all still have a lot of time ahead of us here on this tour. Each time we go out, we wonder if this mission will be the one where we get hit. We wonder about our own mortality and secretly hope that it’s not us that wins the “Iraqi Lottery” that day. Lately we hear of more and more bombings and civil unrest throughout Iraq. We’ve seen the vehicle bone yards here in Kuwait with the wreckage of war; Bradley armored fighting vehicles, Humvees, and even some MRAP’s turned inside out and blackened by fire, and our hearts sink just a bit. “I don’t think there is really anyway to prepare for that“, Staff Sergeant Roberts told me, speaking quietly about having to confront the possible eventuality of losing someone. “You just go out and do your job to the best of your ability and continue to train so its muscle memory, and leave the rest to the man upstairs“.
Looking forward to our homecoming and what lies beyond keeps us positive and focused. What lies ahead for Staff Sergeant Roberts? “I don’t know quite yet. I still want to go active duty but I would also like to stay in Nevada where I was born and raised. I would love to land a full time job with Guard in Las Vegas or in Northern Nevada. 5 years from now I still see myself in the Army, working on promoting to or already having been promoted to a Sergeant First Class and continuing my career in the Army”. Like any new leader, Staff Sergeant Roberts has seen his share of good days and bad over here. Our squad, The Wolfpack, is like a family. We love one another, and some days we hate one another. We argue, joke and fight, but there isn’t a one of us who would not hesitate to lay down his life for his brother. Each one of us is here for a purpose much greater than our own desires, and Staff Sergeant Roberts is quickly coming into his own.