I had the honor of speaking with Major Laura McHugh last year, not long after she had wrapped up a 14-month tour of Iraq as commander of the Williamstown, PA-based 131st Transportation Company, a unit of the 213th Area Support Group of the Pennsylvania National Guard.
McHugh talked about her experiences and the lessons she learned as commander of a truck fleet charged with delivering vitally needed supplies in horrendous conditions — excruciating heat, sandstorms and sometimes even under fire.
It was an experience of extremes, she explained, from the simple (and boring) routine of loading and driving trucks one moment to being blinded in a freak sandstorm or shot at the next. Packed two to a vehicle, her troopers sweated under 10 to 15 pounds of body armor, knees knocking the barrels of their M-16 rifles as they looked for potholes, ditches, snipers, ambushes, roadside bombs and other hazards.
“We learned a lot — the importance of regular training, the ability to improvise and adapt to the unexpected and, of course, the value of vehicle maintenance,” McHugh said. But McHugh believes it was the training that got the 131st through its tour. And this is what she hopes will continue to guide her former soldiers, 15% to 20% of whom are truck drivers in civilian life.
“A big part of our day involves training — security procedures, driving procedures, medical training, etc.,” she told me. “The point is to train ourselves so well that you don't have to think when a crisis occurs. You know exactly what to do almost by instinct.”
These lessons are applicable to most commercial fleets — minus the need to keep an eye peeled for bombs and bullets.
McHugh is proud of the fact that the lowest ranking enlisted personnel in her unit were trained so that they could command some of the convoys. This was all part of her effort to make sure everyone in the unit, no matter what their rank, knew what to do so supplies would get delivered.
Operating a fleet of 60 M915A4 tractors — the military day cab version of Freightliner's FLD 120 — from Kuwait, the 131st would have upwards of five convoys on the road at any one time on missions lasting four to eight days.
McHugh used the two days of “down time” she was given between missions to continue training her personnel. “We had to learn flexibility. For example, mechanics had to learn to become drivers and vice versa,” she said. “Maps weren't that good, so we relied on GPS,” which meant training people to use it.
The difficult operating environment made vehicle maintenance even more essential, McHugh pointed out. “Imagine driving in a sandstorm, with no visibility, with the temperature at 146 deg. F outside the cab. The tires in some cases literally melted right on the trucks.” And since replacement parts were in short supply, mechanics had to practice creative maintenance on the road.
One of the biggest strains on the 131st, however, came from worrying about the home front. “For the first six months, we handled it all right,” said McHugh. “Then it became harder; financial issues were the biggest strain. And since over 20% of our unit is made up of female soldiers, we had a lot of mothers experiencing their first long stretch away from their kids.”
As a wife and mother, McHugh speaks from experience. Her husband, also a member of the National Guard, runs a maintenance depot.
But she emphasized that staying focused on the job at hand was critical to survival. “To stay safe and alert to danger, we had to completely focus on our missions — that's what keeps you alive.”