When most people think about the U.S. Army, it stirs memories of tanks busting through earthen berms during World War II and Operation Desert Storm, and more recently of huge tan colored armored personnel carriers transporting troops across dusty battle fields in Iraq and Afghanistan, but few stop to think about how all of that equipment got there for the Soldiers in the first place.
To many it just appeared as if by magic… and for those who are in desperate need of food, water, ammunition or equipment, it can seem more like a divine act.
But Lt. Col. Brian Memoli, commander of the 841st Transportation Battalion, 597th Transportation Brigade, says it is neither magic nor a miracle, it is simply the result of a lot of good planning and hard work… something the 841st is best at.
The 841st Trans. Bn., based at Joint Base Charleston, S.C., recently wrapped up ten days of training Dec. 18, with the 688th and 689th Rapid Port Opening Element Soldiers from Fort Eustis, Va.
"What makes this training so valuable for the troops is that it is real world and hands-on," said Memoli. "There is no simulation going on here -- these are real ships, real missions and they have got to be carried out quickly and safely."
In order for the Army to rapidly project its power throughout the world and respond to a broad spectrum of contingencies, the Army has fully loaded ships prepositioned at sea known as Army Preposition Stocks-3 (APS-3) and which make up the Army Strategic Flotilla.
The ships are on standby 24-7 and remain at sea for up to two years waiting for orders directing them to new ports of call where their vital cargo is urgently needed.
APS-3 is comprised of various brigade sized equipment sets aboard eight Large, Medium-Speed, Roll-on/off ships, also known as LMSRs. The mix of cargo carried on APS-3 ships makes it possible for an armored brigade to open a theater of operations with minimal delay.
Working with APS-3 vessels is unique to Charleston and the 841st Trans. Bn. and not typically carried out by other transportation units.
"The 841st is the only Army transportation battalion working with APS-3 prepositioned ships on the east coast," Memoli said. "In the past year, we have trained roughly 588 RPOE and Army Reserve Soldiers [in this real world environment], all while continuing to do our normal mission unabated."
In any given week, the 841st Trans. Bn. can process three cargo ships in two separate port facilities, receive 800-1,200 pieces of cargo via truck or train while also being able to send a 10-man support team to Army units anywhere in the country to assist them in readying their equipment for transport to port facilities.
Under normal operating parameters, the 841st Trans. Bn. can load or unload an APS-3 ship in 10 days. However, when the need is urgent the battalion shifts to around the clock operations so they can reduce that time to 48-72 hours.
It is an amazing feat by anyone's standards, but it is even more remarkable when one considers how few personnel the battalion has at its disposal.
"The 841st is comprised of only seven active duty military personnel, 20 Army Reserve Soldiers and 21 Department of the Army civilians, said Capt. Cory Dearolf, 841st Trans. Bn. Traffic Management Division Officer. "The Reservists are a force multiplier to our mission and bring previous skill sets from recent deployments to the 841st."
"We are responsible for a whole slew of seaports from Maine to the southern border of Georgia," Capt. Dearolf said.
Army Sgt. First Class Robert Kilgore, a reservist with the 352nd Terminal Support Team out of Jacksonville, Fla., is currently mobilized with the 841st Trans. Bn. and explained that there are a lot of moving parts in getting the right equipment onto the ship at the right time and into the right location on the ship.
"We began assembling the vehicles to be loaded in our staging yard over the past 30 days," Kilgore, a Traffic Management Coordinator, said. "Every piece of equipment must be weighed, measured, loaded onto planning load sheets, and then moved into exact positions on the ship to ensure the stability of the vessel." A task nearly impossible to do once the ship is underway and at the mercy of Mother Nature's fury.
"After that," Kilgore explained. "Each piece of equipment is independently checked by three separate teams who verify that everything is safely in place in the bowels and surface deck of the ships."
The vessel being loaded by the 841st Trans. Bn., with the assistance of the 833rd Trans. Bn. RPOE Soldiers as part of their training, is the United States Naval Ship (USNS) Watkins.
The ship is named after Medal of Honor recipient Army Master Sgt. Travis E. Watkins who died in battle saving his men in Korea in 1950.
USNS Watkins is one of 19 large, medium-speed, roll-on/off ships currently in use by the Navy.
These ships are 950 feet in length, have a beam of 105.8 feet, displaces approximately 62,000 long tons and typically holds 1,200 to 1,600 pieces of individual equipment in its cavernous 394,000 sq. ft. cargo area. It is a gas-turbine powered ship capable of sustained speeds up to 24 knots.
"The hands-on training has been very beneficial for both me and my Soldiers -- it is pretty interesting," said Sgt. Pammie Sokau, Non-Commissioned Officer in charge of the training RPOE Soldiers. "We are trained as 88-Mikes and 88-Hotels so we are used to dealing with the vehicle driving and documentation side of port operations, but this is giving us an introduction into the contract management, labor relations, and other areas of logistics management within the mission."
"My goal is to be proficient in all the tasks related to my job series," Sokau said. "This training will certainly make us better-rounded as Soldiers."
When finished, the Soldiers oversaw the accountability and loading of nearly 1,300 vehicles and containers onto the USNS Watkins before it once again sets out to sea, awaiting orders to set sail for America's next trouble spot.
"You can fly troops anywhere in the world when the President or Secretary of Defense says he wants them on the ground," Memoli later said. "But if you can't get their equipment there on the ground with them, they'll be walking."