COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - By Lt. j.g. Bryan E. Mitchell
There's no substitute for experience.
Staff Sgt. Sheila D. Lucious needs more than six zeroes to calculate hers. And counting.
The 54-year-old Columbus, Ga., noncommissioned officer serving in northern Afghanistan with the Georgia National Guard 1230th Transportation Company has racked up more than one million miles as a commercial truck driver on America's highways and byways.
She has hauled beer from St. Louis to Pennsylvania, car parts from Mississippi to Montreal and freshly sliced beef from Kansas to Chicago.
"I've literally pulled into places where they were bringing in the live cattle and left 24 hours later with my back end full of meat," she said during a recent interview.
She knows there are just shy of 900 miles across Texas on Interstate 10 and considers Interstate 40 – stretching from near the Atlantic Ocean in North Carolina to Barstow, Ca. – the most scenic east-west interstate in the country.
"It's especially nice through Arizona, where you can take a short detour to see the Grand Canyon," she said.
She'll avoid toll road, has the locations of the weigh stations memorized in relation to mile markers and nearby cities and shutters when recalling the black ice outside of Troy, Ill.
That's where her training – don't slam the brakes on ice – possibly saved her life as her rig completed a 360-degree twist before jackknifing off the road.
"That," she said before pausing a beat to recall the terror of the moment, "was terrifying."
In Afghanistan, there aren't short detours for sightseeing and, luckily no black ice thus far. There are mission upon mission driving her personal odometer higher.
She's part of a team shutting down bases and consolidating resources onto larger installations. Along the way, she's accumulating experiences drivers back in the United States could hardly fathom.
"The driving's a lot different over here," she said with the smile of woman not intimidated by the challenge. "The roads aren't nearly as wide and we've take off some mirrors on the narrow stretches."
The difficult road conditions that alternate between unpaved, uneven gravel-laded paths barely wide enough for passing trucks to negotiate safely to intermittent well-paved stretches are made all the more challenging by the colorful mix of vehicles – and driving styles – sharing the road.
Afghan motorists are still learning driver safety skills taken for granted in the United States.
It's not quite anything goes – but one could be forgiven for calling it that.
The roads are shared with bicycles and mopeds – sometimes carrying up to five passengers – as well as donkey-driven karts, jalopy taxis and colorful jingle buses jammed beyond capacity with intrepid passengers clinging haphazardly to the roof, somehow smiling through the bouncing ride and the flying dust.
These conditions conspire to stretch what could be a seven-hour drive into a 12- to 14-hour marathon.
"It's long days but it's been great to see some of the country," Lucious said, her determined spirit overwhelming the dreary aspects of the work.
She's also acquiring some history.
She was part of the team that moved tons of gear out of Kunduz earlier this year as the German-led coalition closed one of its larger satellite bases in the north of the country.
Most the missions occur at night, where darkness provides additional cover from the ever-present threat of roadside bombs – improvised explosive devices in military parlance – and less-congested roads.
But she's caught enough daylight to enjoy some of Afghanistan's stunning topography.
"There are some incredible views and amazing things to see out there," she said. "Some of the mountains and the valleys really take your breath away."
When she's not hauling military hardware by moonlight, Lucious has served as the unofficial "mother" of her platoon.
Due partly to her age, and partly to her own extensive brood, the great-grandmother is often called upon to lend a patient ear and dispense sage advice to the younger troops under her watch.
"There's some young and hard-headed ones that want to do it their own way, but after they make a mistake they come to me and say, 'Mom, can we talk for a minute'," she said. "And I always give them my time and help them understand where they made mistakes and how they can sort it out."
She takes it all in stride. Just another day in an unconventional Army career destined for what she hopes will be another fork in the road toward greater success.
She served in the Army for seven years in the 1980s, driving trucks in what was then West Germany for part of her active duty stint. A 20-year break in service followed before she re-enlisted in 2007, now as member of the Georgia National Guard.
Once her time in Afghanistan concludes, she's got here eye on leveraging her pending bachelor's degree into a job in logistics.