By Sarah GarnerDecember 23, 2013
SCOTT AFB, Ill. - As if staging and loading a couple of vessels with a deploying Army unit's tanks, trucks and other heavy equipment wasn't a big enough task, the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command's 842nd Transportation Battalion, 597th Transportation Brigade, also conducted vessel offload operations for equipment returning from Afghanistan at the Port of Beaumont and at Port of Port Arthur, Texas, simultaneously, these past two weeks.
"We've got a lot going on, but this is what we do and we do it well. Orchestrating and executing each mission safely, and as efficiently as possible, is the priority," said Army Lt. Col. Darrin Bowser, battalion commander.
The battalion loaded 360 pieces of cargo belonging to a deploying Army unit were loaded onto two vessels at the Port of Beaumont Dec. 13-20. Additionally, in the last month, the battalion offloaded more than a thousand pieces of retrograde and unit redeployment cargo returning from Afghanistan from three different vessels at Port of Beaumont and Port of Port Arthur, which are 17 miles apart. As a side note, Port Arthur is the name of the town, which the founder, Arthur Stilwell, named after himself in 1895, and Port of Port Arthur is the name of the port.
After the cargo was discharged from the vessels and staged at both ports, it was loaded and secured onto trucks and railcars bound for depots and military installations around the United States.
"This is a team effort. It takes a lot of people from different organizations to come together, [and] synchronize efforts, for the operation to flow smoothly," said Bowser.
Locally contracted stevedores execute the terminal operations, getting the cargo on and off of the vessels, trucks and railcars. Representatives from the vessel, stevedoring and longshoring company, battalion and the deploying or redeploying unit, plan the operation in advance and meet throughout the process to ensure the smooth movement of equipment and cargo.
"Bad data is the one thing that can put a kink into otherwise smooth operations. The data on the manifest, the documentation stickers on equipment and the actual equipment dimensions, condition, tracking number, etc., all need to match. When data on one or more of those items is wrong, it can throw things off," said Bowser.
For example, inaccurate data can halt the flow of operations if the height dimensions of a Humvee don't include a permanent antenna, or another modification. Inaccurate dimensions can result in the cargo not fitting in the space on the ship it's intended to be stowed.
"The stevedores can't modify any of the cargo or equipment. They have to load it as-is. If they're working with bad data on any of the dimensions, then we have to reevaluate where the equipment is loaded on the ship, which could have a domino effect," said Bowser. "That's why it's imperative that the deploying or redeploying unit inputs accurate data on their end before the cargo arrives to be transported."
According to the battalion's chief of operations, Ken Pendergraft, on average, it takes approximately 125 longshoremen to load 300-500 pieces of cargo. A mission such as this week's, where a lift-on lift-off vessel is used, vice a roll-on roll-off, requires 45 longshoremen, because it's a slower process, as each piece of equipment is loaded onto the vessel via crane, and not simply driven on or off the ship.
"I think this is the stevedores' favorite kind of cargo to handle. They take a lot of pride in getting this equipment where it needs to be for the men and women of our Armed Forces," said Ronnie Hicks, director of operations at Port of Port Arthur.
When cargo arrives at a port via rail or truck, it is offloaded and staged in holding yards in a specific layout, so it can be loaded as efficiently as possible onto the vessel according to a stow plan.
"Military cargo is different than general cargo, thus requiring special training and handling procedures, including how to start and drive M1 Abrams battle tanks, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and Humvees, known as High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles," said Pendergraft.
The 842nd Trans. Bn. sets up training for the stevedores on how to start, move and properly shut down the specialized vehicles and equipment.
"These guys and gals get to go home and tell their kids and friends they drove Army tanks, today. How cool is that!" said Beaumont's port director and CEO, Chris Fisher. "We're all very proud to have a role in ensuring national defense and supporting the troops."
The stevedores also go through training certifications on how to secure cargo properly. Only certain types of chains, straps, shackles and locking mechanisms can be used with heavy and sensitive military equipment.
SDDC's Transportation Engineering Agency conducts the analysis for the transportability and deployability of all military equipment, including the methods and standards used for securing equipment during transportation.
"The most advanced piece of military equipment is useless if you can't get it from Point A to Point B. Will it fit on a plane? How will it be secured on the plane? Will the aircraft's balance be impeded? How about a train? How about moving it across bridges on trucks? Can the truck axel or bridge's infrastructure bare the load?" said John Newman, TEA Chief Transportability Engineering, "These are some of the questions our engineers ask and find answers to."
During the recent port operations, TEA engineers, who got to take a rare trip away from their cubicles at Scott AFB, were able to see their research, math and analytics in action - live and in person.
"It's pretty neat to see the trucks getting loaded off of railcars, driven to the staging yard to get in line to be loaded on the ship, and then to watch the stevedores hook up the equipment to the cranes at the lift points. Those are the lift and securing points that were designed and manufactured based on our studies, analysis and just lots of applied math and physics," said Danielle Bartolomucci, TEA Operations Research Analyst.
As the 842nd Trans. Bn. wraps up operations for their most recent terminal operations, they are already well into planning for the next round of military cargo to arrive at the port.
"Keeping the cargo moving, whether headed overseas or back to a unit or depot stateside, is a continuous process. We live for this stuff." said Pendergraft.
SDDC manages 87 percent of the cargo coming out of Afghanistan, with the 595th Transportation Brigade being the critical node in the region. In its key role as the air-surface integrator, SDDC orchestrates the multi-modal transportation operations being used to get cargo in and out of Afghanistan.
SDDC is a unique Army command that delivers world-class, origin-to-destination distribution solutions. Whenever and wherever soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen are deployed, SDDC is involved in planning and executing the delivery of their equipment and supplies through surface and multi-modal transportation operations.
The command, headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., is composed of active and Reserve military and civilian personnel stationed all over the world. SDDC accomplishes this mission by partnering with the best of U.S. commercial shipping, port, air, trucking and rail services to deliver cargo to every corner of the globe supporting Department of Defense contingencies, exercises and humanitarian aid missions.