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The Times October 7, 2004

Northern troops get used to the 'HET'

Unit training on tank-loading rig before deployment.

By John Andrew Prime

CAMP MINDEN - The sound of the straining winch motors is louder than the muffled rumble of the engine of the huge truck as it pulls the 70-ton M1A1 Abrams main battle tank onto its low-slung trailer.

Wire cables as thick as your finger fall slack and then yank taught as the twin winches, each capable of pulling 55,000 pounds, gently haul the unmanned tank, its engine cold, up sloping ramps. More than two hundred eyeballs take in the sight as Minnesota Army National Guard soldiers, here through Oct. 15, learn what will be the hardest part of the job they will face when they deploy to Iraq in coming weeks.

"You got 70 tons of a dead load, and 110,000 pounds pulling on it," said Sgt. 1st Class Pat Allen, a senior instructor with Minden's 1083rd Transportation Company, seasoned veterans of Iraq who are now teaching troops headed for that arid land the fine points of loading and moving tanks and other heavy equipment. "When tanks are dead like that, it's probably the most critical thing you can do loading it."

Fellow senior instructor Staff Sgt. Jimmy Smith, a trucker in civilian life, agrees.

"Any time you have a dead load it's critical," he said. "We check for kinked or frayed cables, and if we find them, that's a deadline fault." That means the equipment isn't used, but is sent to the shop for repairs. So far, the two said with more than a touch of pride, they haven't lost a load or cables.

"This whole thing is geared around safety," Allen said.

Just over 100 Minnesota troops, male and female, flew into Shreveport on Oct. 1, and travel daily to this sprawling training site south of Minden. Once the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant, it now serves as a place where, several times a year, troops come to learn to use the Army's Heavy Equipment Transporter System. The 48-wheel monster truck and trailer can carry the heaviest Army equipment on everything from normal highways to desert sands.

"The amazing thing to me is they can carry a tank," 2nd Lt. Brandi Wilson, a 25-year-old platoon leader with the Minnesota Army National Guard's 434th Chemical Company, said as she and her troops watched instructors, mostly with the 1083rd Transportation Company but with a sprinkling of teachers from a sister unit, the 1086th, make the tough job look easy. "And they're fairly easy to drive, almost like driving a family car. THAT'S amazing."

Earlier this week, after several days of classroom instruction on everything from how to fuel the vehicles to how to tweak the air-operated lifts that constantly adjust the heavy load, the Minnesotans got their first hands-on experience with the trucks. It wasn't glamorous: They learned how to change tires and do other dirty-hands things needed to keep the trucks happy.

Thursday's task was to learn to pull the dead tanks onto the trailer, secure them and straight-line drive a little. Today and Friday, more than two dozen HETS, each carrying a tank, will rumble along Camp Minden's 80 miles of roads and may even venture on public highways, with state permits and escorts, as the drivers learn their jobs.

After the hard lessons are imparted, the students will learn easier jobs, like hand-guiding a rumbling tank, with a driver on board and its engines roaring, onto the trailer.

With four students and one or two instructors on each unit, the knowledge will pass from veterans to those about to go into harm's way.

The student-teacher ratio would warn the hearts of public school principals. For the 105 students in this class U the third at Camp Minden this year U there are 33 instructors, with support from the state's 199th Leadership Regiment.

"We have a support staff of seven, including two medics," said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Wale. "We've already had one person had to get some stitches U he hit his head on something." Safety briefings and risk assessments are daily, serious events, he said. "When you're dealing with heavy equipment, it's easy to get hurt. You've got to keep your eyes on what you're doing."

For Lt. Col. Carl Thompson, facility manager at Camp Minden, the classes represent more than Army knowledge being passed on to new troops. It also represents a bonding between soldiers from afar and the local area, and their own futures.

For one thing, the soldiers' classes and practical experience impart a skill that can command top dollars in the civilian job market.

"If they can drive a HET with 48 wheels on the ground, they should be able to drive an 18-wheeler," he said.

But these soldiers also come here for two weeks, have catered meals at Camp Minden, stay in community hotels and eat at area restaurants, and have free time to take in local sights, he said. So they leave dollars here like other visitors, and they leave with what he hopes is a good impression of the area.

"Installation military training is economic development," he said. "It's an infusion of money into the northwest Louisiana economy, and it's important for our area population."




Copyright 2004, The Times (Shreveport, LA)