When it comes to driving trucks for the Army, Staff Sgt. James Lowe has been around.
The 13-year-veteran from Canton, Illinois, has served as a trucker in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lowe is now on the road in Poland – his fourth deployment - where his Army Reserve unit, the 724th Transportation Company, out of Bartonville, is responsible for driving bulk fuel and cargo throughout the country.
Even though he’s not facing the dangers of roadside bombs and enemy fire, the country roads of Poland present a unique challenge when it comes to navigating an 8-foot-wide, 55-foot-long M915 tractor and trailer. Lowe serves as the platoon sergeant for the 724th’s 3rd Platoon “Reapers”, meaning he is tasked with showing the platoon’s new Soldiers how to safely transport cargo to 11 base camps throughout Poland.
“European roads are a lot smaller than American roads so it’s more of a challenge on how to maneuver these vehicles on such tight turns, tight roads,” Lowe said.
“What’s really unique is the road styles, they love to use roundabouts for everything. It depends on where you’re going and how easy it is to get there, so to speak. Taking 90-degree turns in vehicles like this, it’s not so easy. If they can drive them here, they can drive them anywhere!”
On April 28, Lowe and Sgt. John Taylor, another experienced Army truck driver also from Canton, were giving on-the-job training to two junior Soldiers – Spc. Dalton Medley, from Ogden, Illinois, and Spc. Chance Vire, from Springfield, Illinois.
The two Soldiers, both on their first deployment, were taking to the Polish roads for their first real mission in-country, with Medley serving as convoy commander. They transported two flatbeds loaded with maintenance supplies from the base camp at Powidz, Poland, to Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area, more than 150 miles away. DPTA is serving as one of the main hubs of the Defender Europe 20-plus allied training exercise, which, although downsized due to safety concerns presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, still involves thousands of Soldiers.
Medley described his role as convoy commander.
“Basically I was responsible for making sure the load was secure, getting in contact with the personnel from each unit, make sure you hit your timelines, make sure everybody’s safe and getting the mission done, and once you arrive, getting the needed personnel in order to deliver the cargo,” he said.
Taylor, who has been with the 724th for 13 years, and has also worked as a civilian truck driver and crane operator, said the main thing he wanted to teach the Soldiers was how to safely transport a load under the road conditions.
“This mission here was teaching them the proper way to secure a load, how to operate with a load, so that way they’re not getting nervous, they’re not getting hectic, especially on European roads that they’re not used to yet,” Taylor said.
He said other than narrow roads and traffic circles, however, trucking in Poland isn’t too different than in the U.S.
“Not a lot of differences at all – the tie-down procedures would be the same, taking breaks efficiently would be about the same, making sure your load is securely fastened down and hasn’t shifted and knowing what to do if it does shift,” he said.
For Vire, the biggest difference wasn’t necessarily the terrain, although he did say a driver needs to fold in their mirrors on the narrow roads or they run the risk of oncoming trucks taking them off.
“The biggest thing to get used to was the smaller cars; back home it’s all pick-up trucks, here it’s all small cars,” Vire said.
Both Vire and Medley said they picked up a lot of good information to move forward with from the mission.
“I learned a lot from my driver, Staff Sgt. Lowe, everything really, from how to drive a truck better, securing loads, helping Soldiers out and everything in the middle,” Medley said.
While Lowe and his Soldiers from the 724th’s 3rd Platoon “Reapers” have been busy with their runs, the 1st Platoon “Spartans” have been fueling, literally, the Defender Europe 20-plus allied joint training exercise in Poland.
Bean and Bicknell arrived with the 724th about three months ago, and since then have consistently logged about 1,000 miles a month, hauling tens of thousands of gallons of fuel.
“We’ve logged quite a few miles,” Bean said. “We’d run like five missions a week. We were on a rotational basis where it was anywhere between two and four missions a week. Those would range between an hour to two hours to 12-15 hours depending.”
“The best thing is the scenery. The scenery’s awesome, you get to see the old World War II and all the monuments and stuff, it’s a lot of fun”.
On April 29, the two were at it again, driving almost 5,000 gallons of Diesel Fuel 2 from DPTA to the port in Gydnia, Poland.
The constant missions mean Bean and Bicknell have gotten to know each other really well. Bean, like Vire, grew up driving farm equipment which led to him enlisting as a truck driver, whereas Bicknell loves all things off road. At 23, he said his prize possession is his 1972 Ford Highboy, which he said is built for tractor pulls.
Just as in the United States, where people are relying on truck drivers to deliver necessary supplies while citizens deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, Lowe and his fellow drivers know Soldiers from several allied nations are relying on his deliveries.
“If we don’t get you what you need, where it needs to be, you’re not doing anything,” Lowe said. “Without transporters, the mission doesn’t happen here.”