WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. - What was once a significant event at the Arsenal may have now become a relic of the past - the annual arsenal shutdown period. After all, can it truly be a shutdown if a lot of folks are working'

Ray Gaston, who is the Chief of the Manufacturing Support Division and who has worked in the Arsenal's historic machine shops for more than 32 years, said that many years ago the annual shutdown event was a two-week period during every summer.

"When I started working at the arsenal in the late 1970s, the annual shutdown period was for two weeks," Gaston said. "We didn't have a choice but to take leave or work with Maintenance because all production was stopped."

According to Gaston, there are two main reasons why the arsenal shuts down production during the summer. First, it is a very good tool to manage vacation time so that the arsenal does not have a surge of vacationers at an inopportune time during production. Second, the down time allows maintenance teams to get caught up on the checks and services of equipment and facilities.

Nevertheless, since the start of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq about nine years ago, urgent requirements to support the warfighters do not allow for all production lines to fully stop, especially not for two weeks. And, given the cost in time and resources to shutdown and then restart a production line it does not make sound economic sense to shutdown all production.

So, Gaston, and more than 200 of the arsenal workforce, remained on station during the annual shutdown period and continued the mission. There was evidence of that in a large manufacturing bay that has been in continuous operation since World War I.

Machinists Jerry Jepson and Bill Sheldon were hard at work finishing mill cuts on two 105mm barrels that will soon be assembled to produce the M119 towed howitzer. This is a small caliber field artillery system, typically used by light artillery units, that is seeing significant combat action in such places as the Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

Although Jepson and Sheldon are relatively new to the arsenal, they have nearly 75 years of machining experience between the two of them. But more important than experience, they have a passion for the work they do because they know there is a Soldier or a Marine whose life depends on them.

"In the few years that I have been at the arsenal, I have tracked every cut that I have ever made on nearly 180 barrels," said Sheldon. "Although this is not required, I do this out of a sense of pride and a sense of responsibility to provide the highest quality weapon to our Soldiers."

Sheldon added that he has had zero defects in the 30 months that he has worked at the arsenal.

Farther down the production bay, machine tool operator John Mundell was using all of his 17 years of arsenal experience to determine cutting depths on a 155mm barrel. This barrel will eventually be assembled on a towed field artillery system called the M777 light-weight howitzer that is also in heavy use by Marines and Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unlike many of the machines in the more than one million square of manufacturing space at the arsenal, Mundell's machine is not computer controlled. But that didn't bother Mundell.

"I love these old machines," said Mundell. "What is great about these older machines, such as this one that was built about 50 years ago, is that they rarely break down."

Of the more than 600 machines, a little more than 50 percent are computer controlled. Right next to Mundell was a state-of-the-art lathe machine being installed that the arsenal had just purchased from South Korea. The contrast was stunning when looking at old and new machinery side-by-side.

But production was not the only work at hand during this shutdown period.

The shutdown period also provided a great opportunity to catch up on annual maintenance requirements such as inspecting slings and conducting load tests on magnets that lift the heavy parts and equipment throughout the production bays.

Machinist Peg Paone and her crew of Kim Scoville, Casey Swinton, and James Washburn were busy inspecting hundreds of slings to ensure they were properly tagged and serviceable.

Frank Salvatore, who is in charge of Peg's crew and three other maintenance crews just like hers, said the teams were inspecting nearly 1,800 slings and other load testing pieces of equipment.

"Because an arsenal worker's life depends on this equipment each day, we take this effort to inspect every load bearing piece of equipment to heart," said Salvatore.

"We don't take any chance with these slings. If there is any chance the sling is not being serviceable, we code it for destruction," added Salvatore.

After Salvatore made that statement he pointed to three large containers with more than 50 slings coded for destruction.

And so, while some of the arsenal workforce were basking in the sun on some Caribbean island or sailing along the Alaskan coast, there were many who still had work to do to support the war effort. And they still had work to do to ensure that when the arsenal vacationers returned to work that they returned to a safer environment.

Shutdown -what shutdown' There was work to do.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16