NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba (Feb. 26, 2013) -- Looking just like any other military ship out on the water, the 175-foot, military-grey vessel glided slowly toward shore at Guantanamo Bay. However, unlike any other military ship out on the water, it bypassed the dock completely, pulled right up to the beach and lowered its ramp with a resounding thud.

This is the U.S. Army Vessel "Runnymede," Landing Craft Utility 2001, the first of the Army's LCU 2000 series of watercraft.

Possibly one of the most integral, yet invisible, components in the Army, the LCU 2000s are flat-bottomed boats used to transport equipment from country to country quickly and efficiently.

"The construction of the LCU allows it to pull right up to the shoreline, as it does not require the depth of water that a normal watercraft would need in order to dock," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jason Hayes, the chief engineer for the Runnymede.

The Runnymede, one of two LCUs under U.S. Army South's operational control, was deployed to Guantanamo Bay to support Integrated Advance 2013, a humanitarian-crisis exercise U.S. Southern Command conducts biennially. The vessel transports equipment such as tents and vehicles, belonging to SOUTHCOM and Army South units.

"We are typically at the forefront for every humanitarian-based operation," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Gary Bolser, the vessel master for this Army South exercise deployment. "We deliver equipment when necessary -- a 'you call, we haul,' type of deal."

Bolser believes his vessel's capabilities can give a humanitarian mission the crucial lead-time to get other equipment out and says that it's superior to other vehicles as far transportation of equipment goes, and can cut money, effort and time.

"We were able to provide immediate relief in the case of the Haiti earthquake in 2010 because of our capabilities and strategically-placed station at Cape Canaveral, Fla.," said Bolser. "A lot of the Haitian docks were destroyed during the earthquake. Because of the uniqueness of the LCU, we could bypass the docking necessity that other boats have, find a beach with the right gradient, and then pull right up to unload our cargo."

The LCUs within the Army South area of operations have been involved in a variety of missions, including the aforementioned Operation Unified Response in Haiti, New Horizons Haiti, Beyond the Horizon, and the IA exercises.

According to Chief Warrant Officer 4 Charles Torell, who serves as Army South's master of marine operations, Army South has 24/7 operational control of two Army LCU vessels, which accomplish four basic missions for the command.

"The first is a permanent sealift capability in support of unified land operations within the Army South area of operations. Second, they support Joint Chiefs of Staff exercises. Third, they provide immediate response to foreign humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts. And lastly, they support joint interdiction task force counter drug operations, and, as needed, support other components in SOUTHCOM," said Torell.

"What is unique about the Army boats is that they do real-world missions. Their job is not to train," said Torell. "They are actually loading cargo that is needed somewhere else. It is not uncommon for them to pick up wheeled vehicles, engineering equipment, or even containerized logistics and transport them throughout an area of operations."

Additionally, the LCUs provide immediate response capability and can respond to any activity within Army South's area of operations within 72 hours.

The vessels carry enough provisions for 30 days and are manned by a 15-man crew, including two food service specialists and a medic. The crew is further divided into deck and engineering sections and is armed with both crew-served and individual weapon capabilities.

"The unique thing about being on the LCU is that we have to be self-dependent," said Hayes. "Each crew member has to know not only his own job, but also the jobs of those below and above him. Each engineering crew member is capable of performing electrical maintenance, marine diesel mechanics, and even sewage treatment. You don't specialize in just one field; you have to learn it all."

"There's a wealth of experience and knowledge on this boat," said Bolser. "When you add up all the years of people on this boat, you end up with a wide range of experiences. If a situation comes up that I haven't experienced, chances are that someone onboard has."

Crew members have to be prepared at all times for any event that may happen out on the water. They do this by practicing scenarios that could occur, such as a fire onboard, man-over-board, and abandon ship. These drills can come at any time, day or night, and are characterized by different alarms.

Many of the crew members often speak about their love of working out on the water and being able to serve on this vessel in particular. Most vessels are named after battles, but the Runnymede was named after the meadow where the Magna Carta was signed.

The Magna Carta is a charter signed by England's King John in 1215, which allowed certain individuals more civil liberties.

The Runnymede was christened in 1987 and has served faithfully since. In 2012 it was given a service-life extension where the vessel was kept whole, but restructured so the Army can use it well into the future.

"The work that's been put into this boat -- from the performance, maintenance, and service aspects -- has been incredible. The state of the Runnymede from the shipyard to today is night and day," said Hayes.

Unfortunately, very few people, including those in the Army, are familiar with the Army watercraft and what they can contribute to the overall mission.

According to Torell, the Army needs these mission-essential maritime capabilities and they are as critical today as they were when the Army first started using the LCU 2001.

"These Army Soldiers are the Army's mariners," Torrell said. "They are very professional, and in this type of mission, no one can accomplish it better than they can. It's important we maintain this vital asset and continue to use it in the future."

Page last updated Tue February 26th, 2013 at 00:00