Army's 'best kept secret' floats
January 26, 2012
KUWAIT NAVAL BASE, Kuwait (Jan. 26, 2012) -- The 824th Transportation Company, a U.S. Army Reserve unit from Morehead City, N.C., recently arrived in Kuwait to start their yearlong deployment. Its home away from home has a unique feature.
The 824th's floating home for the next year is the Landing Craft, Utility, 2002 -- United States Army Vessel Kennesaw Mountain, a 174-foot-long watercraft.
The crew is made up of 17 Soldiers. Its mission is to carry materiel throughout the Persian Gulf. The crew is made up of seven Soldiers on the deck side, seven watercraft engineers, two cooks, and a medic.
Since the crew just arrived, it had to do an extensive check of the vessel's safety and mechanical equipment, and complete one mission with the Kennesaw Mountain's previous crew.
In between missions the crew will polish its vessel-operation skills and makes sure its licensing requirements are met. This will enable the crew to be in a constant state of readiness, and ensure it's ready for any mission.
Early in the morning of Jan. 20, the crew loaded the food order that just arrived into the galley and prepared to depart for a day of training and licensing exercises. Just after 9:00 a.m., Sgt. Robert L. Wallace, the vessel's boatswain, blew the horn to alert anyone within earshot that the Kennesaw Mountain was pulling away from the pier at Kuwait Naval Base.
Wallace, a North Carolina state trooper in civilian life, joined the unit in July 2006. Wallace manipulate the controls on the vessel's bridge to pull the Kennesaw Mountain away from the pier, turn it around, and depart the harbor. Even though Wallace was under the watchful eye of the skipper and first mate, he handled the vessel like a pro.
Wallace, like many of the other Soldiers on board, have a common story. They had no idea the Army had a fleet of watercraft until they went to the Military Entrance Processing Station.
"We are the Army's best kept secret," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kenneth "Neil" Styron Jr., the vessel's chief engineer. Styron spent six years as an enlisted Soldier before becoming a warrant officer.
Styron said most people, even Soldiers, don't realize the Army has watercraft. His big grin shows his appreciation for finding this unique opportunity to continue serve the United States as an Army Reserve Soldier.
Sgt. 1st Class Ronald E. Buffkin is the vessel's first mate. He served with the Navy in the mid-'70s and was out of the military for 18 years before finding out about the Army Reserve unit near his home that operated watercraft. He has been with the 824th since 1996.
Buffkin said he's reluctant to be promoted to the next level, since master sergeants have to come off the LCU and become part of the land-based crew.
"We have a saying," said Buffkin. "If it ain't got water under it, we don't want anything to do with it."
Pfc. Tyler M. Morrow, 18, a vessel engineer, is the youngest and least-experienced Soldier on board the Kennesaw Mountain.
"I volunteered for this deployment while I was still in AIT [advanced individual training]," said Morrow. "With all the training, I have only been home for maybe three weeks since I shipped off to basic training."
Morrow recited the all-too-familiar story about how he didn't know what job he wanted to do in the Army. His recruiter sent him to MEPS, where the position of watercraft engineer was offered. When Morrow told his recruiter what military occupational specialty he chose, the recruiter had to look up the job to see if it actually existed.
Even the Kennesaw Mountain's skipper said many Soldiers don't know about the Army's watercraft.
"The Army has more boats than the Navy," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Tom Heald. "Most people don't realize the size of our fleet."
In addition to having a job that most people don't know about, the crew has another similarity: they love what they do. Most of the crew has lived around the coastal Carolinas for years. Many have had family in the marine industry.
"A lot of people on here enjoy their jobs and love to talk about it," Styron said.
"Most people in this field, you can't run them off," he said.
As Heald watched, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel A. Close, the 1st Theater Sustainment Command's maritime mobility noncommissioned officer, performed an anchor maneuver. The procedure was part of Close's licensing process.
"It doesn't matter if we are licensing or delivering something, we are out here doing what we love," Heald said.
Close and Wallace worked on their licensing packets during this trip. They both hope to advance their skills to take them to the next level of Army watercraft operation.
"The boat field is run by license type instead of rank," explained Spc. Devan C. Foley, one of the Kennesaw Mountain's deckhands.
That means if a specialist has a higher-grade license than a staff sergeant, while on the boat, the specialist is in charge.
Foley, who is also a Landing Craft, Mechanized, 8000-series operator, known as a Mike boat, assists with all deck operations including emergency drills, cargo loading and unloading, and battle stations.
"The Mike boat is run by all NCOs," Foley explained. The size of the vessel dictates the size of the crew. The Army's largest watercrafts are the Logistic Support Vessels, which feature a crew of 32 versus the three-person crew of the Mike boat.
During a day of training and licensing, Foley was on deck with three others performing their tasks as proficiently as possible.
Styron said that about 90 percent of the crew has worked together before this deployment.
"Unlike most Reserve units, during [Annual Training], we do real-life missions, and they usually last about 28 days," he said.
Styron recounted the missions the unit has had: Haiti, moving cargo to and from the Caribbean, and using one of company's vessels to aid in the recovery operation to raise the USS Monitor, a Civil War ironclad.
After the crew took the Kennesaw Mountain beyond Kuwait Naval Base's high-water barrier, it opened up the engine to allow the engineers to check some work that was recently completed on the vessel.
Over the loudspeaker, a voice bellowed.
"Man overboard, man overboard, blue coveralls, port side."
The young but efficient crew raced into action. Out of nowhere, the deck was full of crewmembers, all pointing in the same direction.
"Everyone points in the direction of the person in the water so we don't lose sight of them," explained Foley as got his recovery gear ready to pluck the figure out of the water. The medic stood by, ready to administer any lifesaving skills the swimmer would need.
The deck listed as the Kennesaw Mountain turned to rush back to where the floating figure bobbed in the waves. As the vessel approached, the deck crew moved to its recovery positions to pull the figure out of the water.
The first pass was successful. As the lifeless figure was pulled onto the grey steel deck, there was a quick laugh as everyone joked with the medic about what to do next to "Oscar," the mannequin.
Even though the day's event was only a drill, the crew took it seriously, for going overboard could happen to any one of them.
On the bridge, Wallace and Close took turns at maneuvering the Kennesaw Mountain as the man-overboard drill was repeated until the skipper and first mate were satisfied.
Next, Wallace and Close started the duty performance test.
"The licensing process is very extensive," Buffkin said. "There are 22 tasks that must be evaluated."
Heald placed an electronic imaginary X on the Electronic Charting System and told the expected licensees to drop the anchor on the X. Close went first. As he maneuvered the boat into position, Buffkin and Heald fired questions at Close, adding stress to an already difficult task. Close called out for wind direction and checked the water depth to determine how to best approach the target without damaging the boat. Close performed as if he had been born to the job. As the deck crew spotted the tension of the anchor chain and reported to Close, he smiled and said his token phrase, "All right."
On board, lunch time is worked into the skipper's master plan for today's exercises. While at anchor, Heald can afford to have only one Soldier on the bridge to perform anchor watch. The Kennesaw Mountain has two Army cooks on board; Wallace explained the crew can place an order for just about anything.
"We don't have access to a post exchange or morale, welfare and recreation facilities, so we stay well stocked," Wallace said.
"We do what we can to give the cooks a break and have the crew eat in the chow hall while in port if possible," Heald added.
The cooks provide three hot meals a day. That day's lunch included fried chicken, mixed vegetables, rice with gravy, and a cinnamon streusel cake for dessert.
"After eating food this good, it's hard to go back to eating at the chow hall every day," Close remarked.
Close and Wallace both passed their anchor test. Next, they had to simulate a beach landing.
Heald said the LCU is much like a barge. Its depth in the water, or draft, is very shallow. The Kennesaw Mountain is capable of landing on a beach to load or offload cargo.
For this day's training, however, the LCU pulled up to a large concrete ramp. Wallace went first; Close stood at the front of the vessel, assisting the deck crew. Close used a radio to call distance reports up to the bridge, letting Wallace know how far he was from the ramp.
As the LCU neared the shore, the ramp was lowered slightly to help the bridge crew see where it was going. As young as Morrow is, he was well-versed in operating the ballast tank system, which is how they raise the nose to aid in a beach landing.
As the vessel approached the ramp, its bow rode high in the water. Just as the LCU stopped, the huge ramp was lowered, and fell within a foot of the waters' edge. The crew raised the ramp, and Wallace, on the bridge, threw the Kennesaw Mountain into reverse, swinging the boat's bow around and heading back towards the sea. Close, during his turn, was just as successful.
The last duty performance test for that day's trip was bumper drills. The crew repeatedly pulled the LCU alongside a dock to show proficiency in using all the tools in the vessel's maneuvering arsenal. That arsenal includes two screws, double rudders, and a bow thruster, which allows 360-degree movement of the bow.
Close and Wallace both passed their tests and the Kennesaw Mountain headed back portside.
The crew of the Kennesaw Mountain takes great pride in its job. Each Soldier knows their mission will be completed with professionalism and pride.
From the youngest to the oldest, each crewmember has found their way into a little-known Army profession. They are happy with, and proud of, their jobs. They don't mind letting the world in on their unique stories of how they discovered the Army's best kept secret.