Army veteran, Werner driver David Conkling proud to power Operation Freedom truck
By Aprille Hanson
The Trucker Staff
Editor's note: This article was first published in the May 15-31 issue of The Trucker newspaper.
As a small boy, David Conkling said he caught the “fever.” Not the typical, stay-in-bed fever, but the fever to hit the open road.
In the 1950s, Conkling’s father owned a small truck fleet, which became his first introduction to the trucking industry.
“Instead of going to play baseball like a lot of kids I just hung out in the shop. I just had to be around them, the sound of the engines, the man and the machine thing,” Conkling, 60, said in an interview with The Trucker at the Mid-America Trucking Show in March in Louisville, Ky. “My dad felt as though he was a part of this country by helping supply commodities. I carry that to this day. We’re a part of America.”
Conkling, a Werner driver for 11 years and a proud U.S. Army veteran, was chosen to drive Werner’s Operation Freedom truck as part of the company’s military campaign, Operation Freedom. Werner officials said they plan to rotate veterans who will drive the truck on an annual basis.
In February, the 2013 Cascadia Freightliner was unveiled at Werner’s global headquarters in Omaha, Neb., and displays a full military theme. Conkling will drive the truck on his routes and it will be showcased at various recruiting events, truck shows and at veteran ceremonies to highlight Werner’s military apprenticeship program.
“This design is not only cool, but symbolic,” Conkling said when he was presented with the keys at a Werner press conference Feb. 22. “When I drive down the highway, I will feel the strength of our nation and actually be wrapped within the flag which all of us veterans hold very dear to our hearts.”
At 17 years old, Conkling joined the U.S. Army and served in South Korea as a tank commander with the 72nd Tanker Battalion at Camp Rose.
“I became a man in the military as many of us did,” Conkling said. “We were all there to do our time, have a good time, stay alive and go home. We had lost our freedom for softball games because of sniper fire. A lot of that forces you to grow up in a hurry, getting shot at.”
Conkling said he remembers one incident in particular at an overpass named Freedom Bridge.
“They took the rail bridge, made it into a cargo bridge. We didn’t have the night vision like they have nowadays; we had fire come from what looked like a makeshift boat or raft but all it really was, was laced-together logs,” Conkling said. “That was probably the scariest time.”
Conkling credits his two-year tour in the military for preparing him for his career in trucking.
“It was the structure of the discipline and the self-reliance, but also learning to rely on others,” Conkling said. “I make a good living; the thing that attracted me here [to Werner] was equipment and security. Then after I got there, we have a term here called ‘Werner family’ and that’s a real thing. It’s not just a sales campaign.”
When one of his daughters had a liver transplant last January, Conkling said Werner made sure he could be there.
“Werner was like, ‘We’ll head you that way and if that ain’t quick enough, we’ll fly you. That makes me stay. I don’t threaten to quit as much as I used to,” Conkling joked.
Conkling, whose mantra is “Safety first, Service second,” has achieved one million miles of safe driving and has been a driver trainer for 10 years. His biggest advice for young drivers: “Nobody gets hurt and don’t bend any metal.”
“If the ghost of your wife or the ghost of your child is sitting there saying, ‘Dad you don’t need to run this hard on this slick road’ or ‘Honey, slow this damn thing down, so what, you’re going to be 30 minutes late, contact dispatch.’ So have that in the back of your mind or in your heart. You might not feel you’re putting yourself in danger, but how would your family see you?”
With all the new regulations floating around and many drivers threatening to leave the industry, Conkling said nothing will push him out because, his “love is too strong for it.” However, that doesn’t mean he agrees with everything the government has enacted.
“When we let them mess with the logbook the first time, I knew they’d never stop. If we could just get Washington to listen to the drivers more,” that would help, he said.
For more than 10 years, Conkling said he did local and regional hauls, allowing him to fulfill the “house husband” role and be there to help raise his two daughters. Conkling said his favorite memories were driving team with Shea, his high school sweetheart and wife of going on 43 years.
“We drove it like we stole it from Seattle to Miami,” Conkling said. “It’s great, trucking with the one you love. They make you sandwiches, they keep the bed clean; it’s great.”
While Conkling has driven all over the U.S. doing what he loves, his favorite spot to be is in Metairie, La., on the “road that leads me home.”
“I still get butterflies in my stomach if I think I’m going to see my wife in a couple of hours,” Conkling said. “She’s my baby.”
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