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Heat, Bugs, and Bullets

Those are the biggest challenges facing education support professionals who serve as Army Reservists in Iraq, they say.

By John Rosales

“They had a whole lot of different ugly bugs with furry legs that would crawl inside your clothes and bite you all over,” says Staff Sgt. James Smith, a school bus driver with the Clark County School District in Las Vegas. “And it was hot—about 150 degrees inside the cab of my truck.”

Smith is one of hundreds of education support professionals (ESPs) who have traded their school wardrobes for sand-colored combat fatigues. As members of the Reserves and National Guard, ESPs from across the country are part of the largest military call-up in the last 30 years.

After a long deployment to Iraq, Staff Sgt. James Smith, a school bus driver with the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, is happy to be back home with his family.
“When our country calls, ESPs respond,” says Karen Mahurin, president of the National Council of ESPs. “It’s hard for them, having to leave their families and jobs. But they don’t hesitate to defend America and everything we stand for.”

When Duty Calls

As a member of the Army Reserve’s 257th Transportation Company, Smith drove a 72-ton Heavy Equipment Transporter with a goose-neck trailer. He hauled tanks, various fighting vehicles, and soldiers from one battlefield to another.

“We would drive 14 hours a day and spend a week or more at a time in a combat zone,” Smith says.

 Among the 253 soldiers in the company was Spc. Kimberley Potter, also a Clark County school bus driver. As a field mechanic, Potter was often in the same 30-truck convoy—dubbed “Rolling Thunder”—as Smith. She and the 29 other women in the unit endured the same sand fleas, camel spiders, and battle conditions as the men.

“In the desert, there are no showers,” she says, “We had to sit through sand storms and clean ourselves with baby wipes.”

The company spent 346 days in Kuwait and Iraq, from February 2003 to March 2004. As a unit they drove more than 2 million miles between home base in Kuwait and hot spots like the Sunni Triangle.

Although Smith was thousands of miles from Las Vegas, he found that his experience at the wheel of a bus helped him on those long drives along the Iraqi countryside.

“The truck was harder to handle, being three times as big as my school bus,” he says. “But I was used to driving in a high state of alertness because at school you have to constantly keep your eyes moving from the traffic on both sides of the bus back to the kids in the rear.”

Road Warriors

Aside from IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and other road mines, Smith and Potter had to beware suicide attacks from pedestrians and other vehicles.

“Cars would come up beside you and start shooting, or kids would run up to the truck and try to throw a grenade in the cab,” Smith says. “‘Stay alert, stay alive’ was my motto.”

Because of the weight of the vehicles and their loads, the convoy didn’t travel faster than 45 miles per hour. In one instance, the slow speed helped Smith evade a pile-up when a truck in front of his hit a roadside bomb.

“The force of the explosion blew out my windows,” he says. “After that, I was always praying.”

On missions that would last up to 12 days, Potter carried an M-16 rifle on her shoulder and a 50-caliber weapon in her Humvee. She and the other mechanics brought up the rear of the convoy as gunner support.

“In Mosul, we encountered enemy fire, but there was little I could do except continue driving,” she says. “In other places people would sometimes shout at us and slide their index finger across their throat.”

Historic Proportions of Poverty

But for other uniformed ESPs, it wasn’t the specific danger that they experienced, but the poverty suffered by local people that struck them most. Staff Sgt. Kenny Ham, who was deployed in February 2003 to Camp Udari, Kuwait, also took part in several humanitarian missions to Afghani villages in Kandahar. On one assignment, members of his company delivered food, clothing, books, toys, and medical supplies to a poor mountain village.

“People came running out of their homes—which were mud huts made with straw,” he says. “As word spread, more and more people came on foot, by camel and donkey. It was chilly, and the kids were barefoot, wearing a single layer of clothing. Their little hands were chapped and weathered.”

The village lacked telephones, television, and radio.  “[Afghanistan] is so far behind the modern world, it is beyond belief,” says Ham, who also flew combat missions as a door gunner during his 14 months in the Middle East.

On the Homefront

Back home, Ham is an assistant fleet mechanic in operations and maintenance with a three-county BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services) in Elmira, New York. Though he lives in New York, he has served 17 years with the 104th Airborne Division of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.

“I joined the Pennsylvania Guard because I wanted to be in an aviation unit,” says Ham, who reports to Fort Indiantown Gap, a three-and-a-half hour drive from his farm house in Pine City. “It was the nearest aviation unit.”

Ham says he has no regrets about his deployment, especially since he received strong support from his school district.

“Two of my co-workers split their shifts to fill in and keep the fleet in good running order,” he says.

None of the three ESPs lost seniority or were penalized during their service in Operation Iraqi Freedom. While they were not paid by the school district during their tours, each received full pay and benefits as active duty military. Smith and Potter say they also received encouragement and advice from Sam Johnson, a UniServ director with the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA).

“It’s a federal law that citizen soldiers have to be excused from work without penalty,” Johnson says. “But we also have it written in our bargaining contract.”

Johnson, who served 23 years in the Air Force, says his military experience helped him negotiate some extra protection for local ESPs.

Having Association support was a relief to the ESPs, especially because of other concerns—including their young children.

“Without hesitation, I missed my son the most,” says Ham, whose son turned seven during his deployment. When Potter left, her son was age three and her daughter was one.

“I left active duty after my son was born,” she says. “I wanted to ensure more time with my family while not giving up my military career.”

Smith’s wife, who was pregnant when he left for the Middle East, introduced her husband to their eight-month-old son.

“I appreciate life more since coming home,” Smith says. “I now thank God every day for having a family, a job, and my freedom.” 

Photo:  Kevin Cannon

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