CAMP SOLOMON ISLAND, Kuwait -- The dark, hulking figure standing in front of an upcoming bridge concerned 27-year-old reserve motor transport operator Cpl. Frank Villaverde. It was two weeks into the war to liberate Iraq and convoys had become an attractive target to enemy forces.
Villaverde was understandably worried about what lurked outside his Logistics Vehicle System's cab while he drove at night under blackout conditions in a 200-vehicle convoy heading to Qalat Sakkar Airfield, roughly 30 miles southeast of Al Kut, Iraq.
A 6th Engineer Support Battalionn Marine, Villaverde was temporarily attached to 7th ESB in late March to help ferry construction engineers and their gear up to the captured but damaged airfield. His convoy came under fire 20 miles outside the major Iraqi city of An Nasiriya.
There, the Superior, Ariz., reservist witnessed the awesome combination of Cobra attack helicopter firepower, Light Armored Vehicle maneuvering, and infantry invasiveness as the Marines overwhelmed enemy forces that were firing upon the convoy.
"You could see [Marines] running through the city and Cobra's lighting up the town," recalled Villaverde. "You could hear small arms fire and see building's burning. It was like something out of a movie."
But what worried Villaverde most was this unidentifiable, towering shadow seemingly guarding the bridge. As he warily sped past it, Villaverde recognized the outline of a horse. "Everyone on the convoy commented on that horse," he said.
Though contact with enemy forces undoubtedly unnerved Villaverde, he said driving in blackout conditions represented his "scariest and most impressive experiences" in Iraqi. Drivers often had to dodge bombed-out weaponry, broken-down equipment and, at times, throngs of people lining convoy routes.
At night, with headlights out, Villaverde strained to make out whether "dark images" were friend or foe, alive or inanimate. He credited the Marine Corps for his ability to stay composed. "All your training comes into play," he said. "You have to hold your bearing and make rational decisions."
Operators for 6th ESB - designated as the bulk-liquids battalion for the war -- drove more than 280,000 miles through terrain that 1st Force Service Support Group's Deputy Commander Col. John L. Sweeney characterized as "dusty as hell and hard to negotiate." The prospect of enemy contact made moving Marines a "perilous" one, he added.
And during the war, convoys typically avoided major paved highways, opting instead for routes that bypassed populated areas. Some routes were barely roads at all.
Still, 6th ESB Marines successfully completed roughly 200 convoys supporting the battalion's 12 fuel and water sites. "That's saying a lot with only 73 Marines and 100 trucks," said Sgt. Daniel Graff, 23, motor transport chief, from Engineer Support Company, 6th ESB. Graff's major challenge was keeping track of those Marines and their vehicles as they stretched across 450 miles from Kuwait City to Baghdad.
Twenty-nine-year-old Sgt. David Blecman, who figures he's driven nearly 10,000 miles for 6th ESB, has traveled the Kuwait City-Baghdad route several times. Aside from ensuring the convoy's safe arrival, operators were also tasked with "passing intelligence back to units about possible ambush sites and reporting suspicious activity," said the Glendale, Ariz., reservist.
Through his humvee's dusty windshield, Blecman watched the progression of Iraqi liberation. "I remember going through these towns when they were vacant - just wreckage and trash," he said. "Now people are out trading with each other and going about business as usual. Civilization is back." The father of two said he'd always remember the Iraqi children who may benefit most from their recent liberation.
"They are the last generation to go hungry and the first to be free," said Blecman.