Our team has tried to drive our 3 humvees through the salt flats before…and we’ve gotten stuck several times doing so. We keep doing it though. I guess since we’ve always been able to “self recover” we’ve never thought much about it. And I have to admit it is a little exciting wondering whether the vehicles will make it through, but after these past few days I hope we’ll forgo the small thrill and stay on solid ground.
Perhaps I’d better back up and explain what a salt flat is. The terrain out where we are is mostly flat, rocky desert. However, there are marshlands where the water table is really high. Since we haven’t had rain since May, the very top of the ground is dry of course, but it ends up hollow and crackly. I person can walk on it without sinking more than a couple inches, but when the vehicles with all of their armor get on there, we’re pushing our luck. Underneath that dry, hollow layer is mud. After about 4 feet of mud you reach the water table as we found out. There are hard-packed areas interspersed with the bad areas, but any area can collapse if enough weight is put on it.
Anyway, our convoy commander decided to take a shortcut thru the salt flats the other day. We could’ve picked up a solid trail headed the same way without going too far out of our way, but that was the choice he made. His vehicle (the lead vehicle) got about 300 meters into the salt flats before bogging down. The second vehicle got about 100 meters into the salt flats before sinking in. And my vehicle in the rear, well, we managed to avoid the bad spots to get around number 2 to try to drag him out, but after 6 hours of digging and pulling we ended up stuck ourselves. By that point we’d already gone to get some of our Iraqis to help. The Iraqis managed to drink most of our water, but didn’t help much with the excavation. The Iraqi leader’s suggestion was to not drive thru there anymore. I’d tend to agree with him on that. The Iraqis gave up after a couple hours and went home after repeated reminders to return their shovels.
So we spent the night sleeping in and on our vehicles. I didn’t sleep very well that first night. I was reminded of how the flies go away when the sun goes down…but they’re replaced by mosquitoes. From about 0600 to 0800 both flies and mosquitoes are out. Unpleasant.
The next morning our “help” showed up. The artillery battery we share our base with brought a couple hummers and two 7-ton trucks out. The 7-ton truck actually weights about 30 tons, but I suppose it can carry 7 tons so that’s what they call it. These 7-tons are pretty rugged. They’ve got a system that can automatically inflate and deflate the tires and 6-wheel drive. The recovery winch on the thing is incredibly strong. In fact, after about 45 minutes they’d snatched two of our hummers out of the mud. The winch just yanked them out like toys; sideways thru the mud even, and these hummers weigh 12,000 lbs. After the second hummer was recovered I went to talk to the driver, a Lance Corporal of about 20 years of age. He said something to the effect that there was no way he and his 7-ton could get stuck. That’s when I knew we were in trouble. He’d been driving on softer and softer ground and what do you know? he hit soft patch with the right side of the vehicle and nearly turned the truck on its side. They battery rushed their other 7-ton in to pull him out…same thing happened. At that point we decided to call the Army unit on our base (they provide most of the logistical needs) and get them to bring their wrecker up to help.
Eventually, the Army showed up with three 5-ton trucks (very similar to the 7-ton but smaller), a few hummers, and their wrecker, which is an 8-wheeled goliath. The wrecker made it about 20 feet into the salt flats before it got stuck. They set up their three 5-tons to pull it out but had no luck whatsoever, as the vehicles couldn’t get enough traction to pull him out, and when they tried with the winch the winch simply pulled all three trucks back into the flats with it. They made some slight progress, but the wrecker always managed to dig itself deeper into the mud. When I saw all those soldiers digging around the wrecker, it was hard to tell if they were digging it out or digging a grave for it the thing it was in so deep. Later on that day the artillery guys showed up with another 7-ton with a winch. The first order of business was to free the Army wrecker. Well, the 7-ton wasn’t strong enough to pull the wrecker out, and they ended up snapping the driveshaft on the 7-ton by having it pull against the wrecker’s winch. They did get the wrecker out though as the 7-ton got pulled in deep enough that it was able to anchor the wrecker as it winched itself out. Then the wrecker winched out the broken 7-ton and towed it home. That was how day 2 ended.
I slept much better that second night. I think it was because I got so little sleep the first night. If you’re tired enough, sleeping on top of a hummer with a kneepad for a pillow is really no problem. You just wake up every hour or so to shake out the kinks in your neck, shoulder, and hip. The next morning we tried all sorts of things to free those 7-tons. We lined up 5 hummers and tugged, but only succeeded in breaking the cables and chains we’d hooked them up with. We did manage to use the winch from the stuck 7-ton to free our 3rd hummer though, after we had enough chains to hook onto it to reach it. We got greedy with the winch though and tried to hook it to the other stuck 7-ton (one stuck truck pulling on another as the anchor) and ended up snapping the winch cable. The winch cables from the hummers had long since been broken, by the way.
Halfway through the third day the pros showed up: four young Lance Corporals and a seasoned Master Gunnery Sergeant to guide them. These guys were enthusiastic. They were sprinting around all over the place. They brought out a 7-ton wrecker (which has an anchor that goes deep down into the ground to stabilize it) and an AAV recoverer. The AAV recovery vehicle, nicknamed the Grocery Gittr, is basically just an AAV, which more or less looks like a big box on tracks. Funny, I had my promotion ceremony 2 weeks ago right in front of that particular AAV; I never thought I’d get the chance to see it in action. Anyway, an AAV can swim but does weigh about 25 tons. We snapped several more chains until they decided to bring the 7-ton wrecker in closer to the stuck 7-tons. They used the AAV to anchor down the wrecker and then the wrecker winch just dragged them right out – impressive. But just when we were cleaning up our trash and getting ready to go, one of the 7-tons got stuck on the way out of flats. They brought the wrecker back in to get him…and he got stuck. So they brought the AAV out to get him and he got stuck. At that point we were worse off than when we started the day, and I was contemplating a few more days out there. But they managed to get all three vehicles out in about 20 minutes as the wrecker winch pulled out the AAV, the AAV yanked (and I mean yanked, that thing has some power) the wrecker out and the wrecker winched out the last 7-ton.
60 hours after we got stuck, we were back home. I don’t think we’ll try to drive thru there again, but I wouldn’t bet against it…maybe we’ll have better luck in the rainy season.