by Sgt. Christopher Gaylord
Fort Irwin, Calif. – Standing over the engine compartment of a Stryker fighting vehicle in the warm afternoon winds of the Mojave Desert, Pvt. Joshua Lopez is a long way from home.
The intense heat, the whipping gusts throwing sand and dust into his face and the sprawling, barren landscape resemble nothing to be found in Coon Rapids, where the 19-year-old grew up.
“The hottest I ever saw it get there was 92 degrees,” he says, taking a break from draining oil from the vehicle. “The coldest was negative 40.”
“The environment right now is probably the best one you can get to simulate Afghanistan.”
Lopez looks around at the vast, arid terrain stretched before him.
“You can’t really get any better, right?” he said.
A Stryker systems maintainer, Lopez is new to the Army, he’s new to his unit and he’s new to the world of mechanics – brand spanking new, as he puts it.
He arrived to his brigade little more than a month ago, and already he’s ramping up to deploy with it this fall.
Lopez arrived at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin June 1, along with the first group of 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division soldiers for a month-long preparation for combat – the brigade’s first tour to Afghanistan.
For a lot of the soldiers whose generation has endured more than 10 straight years of overseas conflict, NTC is familiar ground.
But for Lopez, the exercise is serving as part of his crash course with Army life outside his initial 30 months of training.
Here, he’s short on experience and short on comfort and familiarity, but he’s making up for it by learning quickly. He has no choice.
“It doesn’t give him any time to get complacent,” said Sgt. Joshua Nunnally, Lopez’s squad leader in the 2nd Combat Repair Team, Company B, 702nd Brigade Support Battalion.
Nunnally is leaning against a Humvee next to the Stryker, watching Lopez as he pumps oil from a component of the vehicle known as its onboard oil exchange, which serves to lubricate the engine’s head.
As part of the brigade’s first week, he and his team are ensuring some of the Strykers are in tiptop shape before their two weeks of back-to-back missions in the isolation of the desert, which the soldiers at Fort Irwin refer to more intimately as “the box” – the same thing many of them call Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I just want to fill in my right patch,” Lopez said, referring to the earning of a combat patch that denotes deployment to a war zone.
“Not exactly to get it (deployment) over with, but just to try and enjoy it as much as I can,” he said.
“I just want to learn as much as I can while I can.”
And under the beating sun, he’s getting a good start at that.
Nunnally observes Lopez’s work and steps in whenever he gets stuck, tiptoeing to peer down with him into the giant machine and give pointers.
While Lopez waits for Nunnally to grab a pump he calls a “Vampire pump,” Lopez shares a trick Nunnally passed on from his years as a Stryker mechanic.
“You can make your own tools,” Lopez says, placing the closed end of a combination wrench over the opened end of another.
“Say you’re at an angle, but you just can’t turn the wrench this way,” he said, holding the two wrenches out and joined.
“You put it like this and you can torque it. It gives you that extra momentum.”
But Nunnally’s sharing goes deeper than handy tool manipulations and what Nunnally calls “the little nuances of being a mechanic.”
The sergeant has deployed once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. He holds the answers to Lopez’s questions of uncertainty in a foreign land.
“He’s asking a lot of questions, which is really good,” said Nunnally, a Milford, Mass., native.
“I’ve asked him, ‘are you scared? And he says he is.’ If he wasn’t, I’d be worried about his mental state.”
Nunnally said he and the others in the unit who have deployed show him photos of their time in Iraq and Afghanistan – the best tangible proof they have of their time there.
But NTC, he said will give Lopez a solid idea of what to expect downrange.
“It’ll be pretty realistic and he’ll have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to go,” Nunnally said.
Nunnally thinks Lopez will be a career soldier, he said.
“I can see it in him,” Nunnally said, now beaming and chuckling proudly. “He likes it; he really likes it.”
Editor’s note: Sgt. Christopher Gaylord is a writer and photographer stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.