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Missouri National Guard prepares truck drivers to be troop lifeline
Missouri National Guard prepares truck drivers to be troop lifeline

During April and May, a group of National Guardsmen worked to reclassify as truck drivers through the Missouri National Guard’s Regional Training Institute.
NEOSHO, Mo. (May 11, 2009) — Fort Leonard Wood provides truck driving classes for most Army and Marine Corps personnel, and a Missouri National Guard unit headquartered at the post is doing the same for a group of 15 National Guardsmen — 13 from Missouri — who are in the process of reclassifying as truck drivers from other military specialties.

Moving troops and equipment in the National Guard is a mission-essential task that is often left to soldiers with the motor transport operator military occupational specialty.

During April and May, the Guardsmen worked to complete their training as truck drivers in a course offered by the 2nd Battalion, 140th Regiment Missouri Regional Training Institute of Fort Leonard Wood at Camp Crowder near Neosho.

Pfc. Jason Vaughn, of the 1221st Transportation Company in Dexter, said he takes the course and job very seriously.

“The truck drivers are the lifeline of the Army,” Vaughn said. “We might not be on the front lines, but we’re delivering the food, water, equipment, ammunition and weapons. Their lifeline is through us.”

The course is four weeks long — the first two in phase I and the second two in phase II. Soldiers learn how to operate and care for several different vehicles in all types of terrain and situations.

In the first 14 days, the class worked with vehicles like 5-ton cargo trucks and M1078 Light Medium Tactical Vehicle 2-1/2 ton cargo trucks.

“We go over the basic operation of the cargo truck,” said Sgt. 1st Class Tom Fischer, institute instructor. “We do some off-road and unimproved-road driving basically to get a handle on the driving of the truck.”

In phase II, the first week is spent on the M-915 series heavy trucks with 40-foot, three-axle, flatbed trailers — which are similar to a civilian tractors and trailers.

Soldiers are taught how to drive with and without a load, couple and uncouple their tractor and trailers, and move in a convoy on the open road. They also must master backing the trailers in a straight line, from an angle and with diminishing clearance.

“The trailer and the trucks aren’t too complicated,” said Spc. James Foley, of the 548th Transportation Company in Trenton. “They are pretty simple to operate. There are not many switches or gauges in the interior.”

During the second week, the class learns to operate the Palletized Load System and the M-1120 Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck Load Handling System vehicle.

The Palletized Load System is crucial to the Army's distribution and resupply system. It was built to carry ammunition and other critical supplies needed in battle. This truck and trailer system can load and unload a wide range of cargo without the need for other material handling equipment. A single operator uses the hydraulically powered hook arm to lift various flatracks or containers on or off the truck in less than one minute, and off the truck and trailer in less than five minutes.

“The whole load can be lifted off and out down on the ground,” Fischer said. “Then they can load the flatrack almost anywhere. The Palletized Load System then comes right to the flatracks that are loaded, lift them and put them right on the trucks and take off. So it makes it a lot faster system to load and then convoy equipment.”

Students learn to load and unload container expresses, which are reusable shipping containers.

Once the course is completed, the Guardsmen must return to their units and refine what they have learned.

“The unit has its own driver’s trainers that then qualify them on the equipment they have at their unit,” Fischer said. “We give them the qualifications, show them how the vehicle is run and then it’s up to the unit.”

The consensus among the students is that Fischer and the classes five other instructors provide outstanding training.

“The instructors make it easy here. They’ve gone out of their way to help Soldiers learn the job,” said Sgt. Nelson Cline of the 548th Transportation Company.

Foley said the instructors’ disposition helped him learn the material.

“The instructors are a lot nicer than the active-duty instructors — they yell at you quite a bit,” said Foley, who lives in Braymer. “These instructors, they don’t do that, which makes the training a lot easier when you are not getting yelled at 24-7.”

Vaughn, who is from Dexter, said Fischer is a soldier’s soldier.

“He’ll teach you everything you need to know about these trucks,” Vaughn said. “When he teaches a class, he breaks it down so you will understand it. If you didn’t grasp something that day when you were training, he’ll take you out after hours and show it to you again. He’ll take you aside, cutup when he needs to and he’s serious when he needs to be.”

Cline comes from an infantry military occupational specialty, but he has a background in truck driving from a prior civilian job.

“I know a little bit about transportation. Transportation is just a broad range of everything we do in the military,” said Cline, who lives in Hamilton. “The unit I’m in is a very good unit. This military occupational specialty will further my career as far as being in the military. I’ve had a couple military occupational specialties.”

Cline, who has had his Commercial Driver’s License since 1999, said he’s enjoyed the people he’s met in the course.

Sgt. Joshua Mickels of Detachment 1, 548th Transportation Company in Centertown doesn’t have any civilian truck driving experience.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been in one of these trucks,” said Mickels as he pointed to an M-915. “At the unit, I was licensed on the Palletized Load System, but these trucks are a little bit different. I’ve learned a lot.”

Mickels, who lives in Jefferson City, said his unit works exclusively with the Palletized Load System.

The most interesting part of the course for Mickels was the night driving during phase I.

“We put on our night vision and we go out and we drive,” Mickels said. “You could see everything. It took a little to get used to, but once you got used to it, it was really neat. You were able to look around and see at night, almost like it was daylight.”

Mickels said the main difference was that everything was green and depth perception is a little off.

“It was much better than driving blackouts,” Mickels said. “You can actually see what’s in front of you.”

In blackout driving, drivers must follow small red lights with no white light at all.

“All you can see is what you are following and what is down on the ground right in front of your truck,” Mickels said.

Sgt. Kendal Hoffman of Company A, 311th Brigade Support Battalion in Nevada, was intrigued by the night driving tactics.

“The blackout and night vision driving, they were both something that we’ve never done at our unit, so that was something new to me,” Hoffman said. “It was very impressive to see it done and actually do it — to get hands on experience and know what it’s like.”

After coming from a generator mechanic military occupational specialty, Pfc. Cody Cook, of the 548th Transportation Company, said he likes being a motor transport operator better.

“I realized as soon as I hit advanced individual training and did that job training, I knew being a generator mechanic wasn’t for me,” Cook said. “I’m glad for the switch.”

Cook, who lives in Jameson, said he had no truck driving experience before the class and has learned that backing a 40-foot trailer is challenging.

“It’s probably one of the most difficult things you can do in these trucks,” he said. “There are so many things you’ve got to get down, but once you stop thinking about it, it’s not so bad. Other than that, everything else is pretty much cake.”

Cpl. Kevin McKeown, of the 1138th Transportation Company in St. Louis, agreed.

“It’s not as easy as it looks, as far as backing these tractor trailers up,” said McKeown, who lives in St. Charles. “I’ve backed up trailers before, but I think it’s that triple axle — it doesn’t respond as quickly as a single axle. It takes some getting used to, but that’s why we are here — for the practice and to learn.”

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