FORT LEE, Va. (March 20, 2014) -- At an Army field site, it becomes as inconspicuous as the sounds of trees rustling in the wind or birds chirping.
The hum of power generators may get a bit of attention the moment they become operational, but it is soon forgotten or simply lost in a diverse mix of sounds that eventually become part of the acoustical landscape.
Until it can no longer be heard.
That's when Soldiers carrying the titles of power-generation equipment repairer take center stage. Designated 91D for short, PGERs receive military occupational specialty training at the Ordnance School here, and they are integral to the success of an Army that operates outdoors. That's according to Clifton Wiley, chief, Power Generation Division, Tactical Support Equipment Department. To illustrate his point, he likes to use this scenario:
"Think about this," he said. "You're out in the field hundreds of miles away, and you have generator sets that are operating the entire company area. What happens if that generator goes down? What's going to happen?
"You need that 91D to come out and repair that piece of equipment."
Wiley concedes his example is a bit over-the-top, considering the fact that most units employ backup equipment, but he didn't want to downplay the abilities of those in the MOS or detract from the importance of electricity in the modern Army.
"I tell my Soldiers that units cannot operate without us in the field," said the retired chief warrant officer 4 and a former 91D. "With all of the technology we have today, you need power -- you need lights in your tents and a place to plug up your coffee pot and your space heater."
The 91D course is 10 weeks long. Students learn everything from electrical circuitry, small and large-capacity generator operation to power grid management and maintenance.
Weeks 3-5 are the most critical, said Wiley. In the third week, students complete blocks of instruction on electronic fundamentals via a mix of self-administered computer learning and instructor facilitation.
Students test their knowledge in weeks 4-5 with scenario-driven practical exercises based on instruction they receive on one model of generator. They must then apply basic principles to repair several models using a troubleshooting approach, said Wiley.
"We might require group A to go out on a 30k generator and group B on a 3kw," he said. "Mind you, we just taught everyone on a 60kw, but we want students to use their basic knowledge and apply it to the 30kw or the 3k and figure out what the problem is."
That approach, something the Ordnance School calls Skills Based Training, focuses on providing Soldiers a strong foundation of fundamental skills they can apply to multiple pieces of equipment. It forces repairmen to think critically, and it increases their confidence and morale, said Wiley. From a wider perspective, it provides the Army an efficient means to deal with an ever-changing inventory of generators.
"This is a wonderful system," he said. "Back in the day, I would have Soldiers come to me and say, 'I've never worked on this piece of equipment before.' They no longer have that excuse. I've provided you everything you need to know to be successful. All you need to do is use your mind, use your skills, grab that technical manual and fix that piece of equipment."
Students were precisely performing those tasks during a recent 91D class in its fifth week. D Module, as it is called, requires Soldiers to find faults in various capacities of generators using the aforementioned skills.
"The scenario in this case is a unit that is in preparation to go to the field, and the Soldiers must inspect the equipment to ensure it is operational," said Wiley over the noisy whine of machinery in the TSED's football field-sized bay area. "Once they determine there's a fault, they have to figure out what the problem is, trace the wirings on the schematic and diagrams and determine what it is."
Bryant Hawkes, a course instructor/writer for the students participating in the exercise, said D Module is unquestionably the most challenging portion of the course, not because troubleshooting is difficult but because the knowledge required to do so is extensive.
"They have to know the functions of a water meter, diodes, relays, batteries voltage regulators -- where everything starts and where everything ends," said the retired PGER while students worked on the equipment. "If you don't understand any of that, you can't work on generators. This is where the rubber meets the road."
While Hawkes walked between rows of generators on the bay floor, students tending to them exhibited sober, focused expressions, conveying the task's seriousness. Pvt. Katherine Born, who had moments earlier worn such a face, completed her exercise and seemed relieved. She said it was not easy.
"It's just a lot of information to cram into your head in a little bit of time," said the Charlie Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion Soldier.
Born, a 31-year-old Michigan native, said she doesn't have a background in mechanics, and that might have put her at a disadvantage.
"I've never dealt with engines before," she said, "and with this, you have to deal with what an engine is doing on top of what an electrical system is doing. It was difficult for me."
Hawkes said the D Module instruction prohibits the use of notes on the floor, forcing students to study prior to the practical exercise. In effect, that pushes students to think critically and develop processes that help to move them along.
"We're strict on them," he said, "but we try to get them to relax. If you push them too hard, they'll get nervous and mess it up. You have to allow them to suck it in and grow into it."
Pvt. Christen Dorr, who had completed his task and stood next to Born, seemed to have grown into at least knowing what it takes be a successful 91D. He rattled off a list of attributes that would make a successful one:
"Someone who is quick-thinking and doesn't get overwhelmed when they're on a tight time schedule," said the 25-year-old Charlie Co., 16th Ord. Bn. Soldier and Washington state native. "Someone who is able to find the part, find the problem and think outside the box to find the issues most wouldn't find."
Those who can employ critical thinking skills will define the PGER Soldier of the future, said Wiley, adding that SBT will play a critical part in helping to develop those skills. That aspiration is a sign the MOS is moving in the right direction.
"It does my heart good to see Soldiers working on equipment and working as a team," he said, noting how SBT has improved the training. "I came through the same training arena, and it was nothing like it is today. It has progressed so much."
More than 1,200 Soldiers who are projected to graduate from the 91D course this year will reap the benefits of a progressive training program. The new graduates will typically go on to work at battalion-level support elements either repairing equipment or training others to operate and maintain equipment. The training received at the schoolhouse and the skills further developed through experience will support the sustainment goals of a modern Army in the field, ensuring the hum of generators never goes silent.