By Julie ShoemakerSeptember 25, 2013
WINCHESTER, Va. - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Deployment Center is officially closing its doors and ceasing operations.
Since May 2005, the UDC has been the first stop for thousands of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Managed by and housed at the Middle East District headquarters in Winchester, Va., thousands of USACE civilians, soldiers and contractors, along with thousands more from other federal agencies, have spent their first week away from their home stations at the UDC being trained and equipped for their new mission.
Throughout the years, the Deployment Center has processed more than 12,000 deployees headed to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. The majority were USACE civilians, although there were thousands from Army Materiel Command and several other Department of Defense agencies, contractors and some military. The UDC also prepared volunteers for recovery operations in Haiti, Pakistan flood relief, National Training Center exercises, exercises in the Republic of Korea, and provided logistics support during Hurricane Sandy.
And now, the final group will process through the UDC next week. Beginning Sept. 30, the transition of the USACE deployment center mission to the Continental United States Replacement Center, or CRC, at Fort Bliss, Texas, will be complete and all USACE civilians will deploy from there. Following 9-11, the USACE volunteers assisting with programs in Iraq and Afghanistan were deployed through the CRCs at either Fort Bliss or Fort Benning, Ga.
"But the Army's one-size fits all deployments didn't fit the unique aspects of the USACE mission," said Lt. Col. Scott Lowdermilk, formerly the chief of Plans and Operations for the Middle East District and currently the officer in charge of the Afghanistan Area Office. "We met with huge resistance when we first tried to stand up the UDC. Col. Bill Fritz, then the assistant Operations Officers for USACE, attained the necessary funding and we started."
The UDC was stood up and operational within 90 days using only $1.6 million of the allocated $2.2 million.
"The UDC was a direct result of our opportunities to provide a capability and to resource critical assets in support of those downrange operations," said USACE Deputy Commanding General for Military and International Operations Maj. Gen. Kendall Cox. "From a personal reflective perspective, the UDC is an absolute game changer. When the decision was made to make the UDC a reality (for those) flowing out of USACE to support our missions down range, it changed the level of training received, the level confidence, predictability and timing in getting our individuals deployed forward. And that's a great tribute to the professionalism and the absolute dedication to excellence that this organization brought to the fight."
The UDC concept was a good one and other organizations recognized that right away.
"My phone started ringing almost immediately after the UDC opened," said UDC Manager Keith Frye. "Everyone started asking if they could use the UDC too, which eventually led to putting more than 25 support agreements in place to support other organizations. That first year, we processed 600 deployees and by the end of the second year, more than 2,500 deployees had gone through.
"We sent more than 12,000 people to Iraq and Afghanistan," Frye said, "and then processed them when they redeployed back home -- that's roughly the population of all of Winchester passing through these doors.
The medical staff reviewed more than 25,000 medical packets and administered somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 immunizations, blood draws and Tuberculosis tests, according to Frye.
"According to Fort Bliss CRC personnel, they have about a 10 percent push back rate for people who have arrived to deploy but are sent home for medical reasons," Frye said. "The UDC rate here was much smaller. In fact, since May 2005, we have only sent ten people home. Ten out of 12,000 is a great percentage and a huge financial savings.
"The UDC logistics staff has had equally amazing successes," he said. "They were responsible for a $6 million inventory of uniforms and equipment, more than 14,000 square feet of off-site warehouses, 35-passenger buses which required certain license to drive, they sew on average 200 uniforms per week, and generated a little more than 20,000 Civilian Access Cards. The Army standard for annual inventory allows for a 2.5 percent variance. Our rate was never that high. In the last three years, we averaged 0.01 percent. That's impressive."
A typical training schedule focuses on unique needs of USACE civilians while following federally mandated curriculum, including medical review, uniform and gear issue, mandatory Department of Army training courses, human resources presentation, legal and financial briefings, protective mask training, and first aid demonstration, training and test.
While the UDC training is intense, it was not a crash course in doing any one particular job. "The majority of deployees volunteered to go and do jobs very similar to what they were doing in their home districts," said Middle East District Commander Col. Jon Christensen. "The UDC focused on the differences - the environment, aspects of living and working in a combat zone, the need for personal protective gear, and much more, getting them prepared for the unknowns they may encounter."
"Week after week, class after class, deployee by deployee, the dedicated staff at the UDC ensured that every volunteer was prepared for service in the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan," said former District Commander retired Colonel Ron Light. "For many volunteers, the UDC was their first exposure to anything related to the Department of Defense or the US Army, and their anxiety was usually quite high. The UDC staff understood this, and the overwhelming feedback from deployees regarding their UDC experience was positive. Other staff, including branch and division chiefs from the Middle East District, shared recent deployment experience with each UDC cohort, further equipping them and easing their fears."
An after action survey is required of each deployee. Honest feedback is requested and encouraged and has led to many changes, tweaks and improvements in the UDC processes.
"Through constant improvement the UDC staff truly developed a well-oiled machine, with a near-perfect record of preparing and moving volunteers to Iraq and Afghanistan," said Light. "During my tenure as the commander for the Middle East District, the UDC staff continually impressed me with their professionalism, dedication to the mission, and care for each and every deployee. In my opinion, their service in this regard was unmatched. Of the thousands of civilians and military who processed through the UDC en route to the Middle East and Central Asia, not a one redeployed early because they were ill-prepared by the UDC. As a commander in Iraq receiving these volunteers, I was always impressed with their positive outlook, eagerness to join the team, and rapid adaptation to the rigors of life in a combat zone. Invariably, they hit the ground running; all of this started in the UDC, and its legacy as a combat multiplier is worth celebrating."
The UDC is also involved with deployees when they return. Although a much shorter process since most deployees are eager to continue traveling back to their homes and families, the UDC process for those returning is just as important as for those departing.
"The UDC made a huge difference in people's lives," said Karen Durham-Aguilera, director of Contingency Operations and Office of Homeland Security, and among the first groups to deploy through Winchester. "The other side of what the UDC is when someone redeploys, or comes back. It made such a different to know there was a group of UDC team members trying to take care of us. It means a lot, particularly for the civilians. It was incredible that the group here was still taking care of us, worrying about us, reminding us about health issues and trying to make sure we follow up on the mental aspects of deployment as well. I cannot say enough about how that helped us to reset when we returned."
"The decision to close the UDC has caused some concern," said Cox, "but the Department of Army and Corps of Engineers headquarters understand the need to maintain the option to reestablish the UDC should the need arise. This globe is not safe and there are still numerous places throughout our world where volatility reigns."
The ceremonial closing was held Sept. 12 and was hosted by Transatlantic Division Commander Maj. Gen. Michael Eyre. Guest speakers included USACE Deputy Commanding General for Military and International Operations Maj. Gen. Kendall Cox, USACE Director of Contingency Operations and Office of Homeland Security Karen Durham-Aguilera, the Middle East District Commander Col. Jon Christensen, and USACE Deployment Center Manager Keith Frye.
"The closing of the UDC is definitely bittersweet," Christensen said. "Although we hate to see it go, it also means that the mission is winding down, fewer civilians and military personnel are going to be put in harm's way. And that's a good thing after so many years of persistent conflict."
The UDC had a vital role in maintaining the consistent flow of personnel to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The UDC personnel did a stupendous, oftentimes thankless, job week after week for the duration of America's longest conflict," said former District Commander and current Chief of Military Integration at Great Lakes and Ohio Division Don Johantges. "If it weren't for their efforts, the USACE mission to re-build Iraq and Afghanistan would not have been possible. Their professional dedication to duty has been a great addition to the long tradition of the U.S. Army Reserves and the Corps of Engineers."