By T. Anthony BellJanuary 7, 2016
FORT LEE, Va. (Jan. 7, 2016) -- In the operational Army, there are high-visibility jobs and those that are not. The ones critical to the mission will receive more attention than others. Variances are likely due to location, the time at which the duties are performed and the level of hierarchy to which the services are rendered.
Then, there are jobs, no matter how critical, for which the light rarely shines.
Welcome to the world of the 92L, or petroleum laboratory specialist, or PLS, where the lack of visibility is an accepted norm and where mission criticality is often overshadowed by other sustainment activities.
So said Sgt. 1st Class Angel Alston, an 18-year Soldier of the trade and current noncommissioned officer in charge, Laboratory Training Division, or LTD, of the Quartermaster School's Petroleum and Water Department.
"It's a low density MOS [military occupational specialty], but it is very critical," she said. "No one really realizes what we do until it's time to deploy. That's when you know you need a 92L, especially if it is an aviation unit."
What PLSs do is test all types of fuels to ensure they're suitable for use. "If it moves or requires fuel, we're testing it," Alston proclaimed, noting contaminated fuel can cause engines to corrode, work improperly or even fail.
Advanced individual training Soldiers and Marines enrolled in the PLS Course undergo nearly 11 weeks of training here to prepare them for a job that is largely concentrated in field units, said Alston. The LTD also trains sailors, airmen, civilians and foreign nationals.
Military members who take on the challenge of earning the title of PLS typically have a real and true interest in science, however, they're usually unfamiliar with the world of petroleum, Alston said.
"The AIT Soldiers coming here probably have never smelled fuel except on pump 9 at the Exxon station," she said. "However, their backgrounds tend to be bent toward science such as chemistry, and they tend to perform well on the written portion of the ASVAB test."
Science takes center stage at the course's training labs adjacent to the PWD headquarters building. It is filled with beakers, test tubes, odd-looking machinery and personnel in lab coats, not to mention the aroma reminiscent of filling up at "pump 9."
Darius Martin, a former 92L Soldier and current 92L contract instructor, said students are introduced to the lab within the first week, gradually learning the equipment and testing procedures for fuels used in ground and aviation vehicles and equipment. During a recent training session with students in their third week of training, Martin continuously hammered down procedures relating to fuel system icing inhibitors.
"It's used to keep fuel in aircraft from freezing at high altitudes," he said.
The students in Martin's group, apron-wearing, frequently poured fuels in and out of containers, studying temperature gauges and reading data contained in references. Martin said it is critical class members learn how to find and cull information.
"Seventy-five percent of our course is based on referencing," he said. "Students need to know where to find the information needed to complete the testing procedures."
From the second week on, said Martin, students spend time in the labs learning how to analyze samples. There are tests for sediment, contamination and water; electrical conductivity; potency; and tests for fluidity. There is an appeal to being the stamp of approval for something critical to the safe movement of personnel, supplies and equipment, said 18-year-old student Pvt. Brandon De La Cruz.
"I like being able to test fuel because with this job you can save a lot of lives," he said, citing the worst-case scenario of a downed aircraft due to fuel contamination. "If you have individuals in the lab who know what they are doing, they could prevent that from happening."
From a lighter perspective, De La Cruz said the course has taught him things about science and fuels he never knew.
"Did you know the best time to fuel your car is in the morning?" he asked, demonstrating his new-found knowledge. "The fuel temperature is cooler in the morning but warms up during the day. Once it warms up, it expands and decreases in potency."
De La Cruz, who had an interest in science before he began the course, may have expected the curriculum to be heavy in scientific practice, however, said Alston, most students are caught off guard by the course's technical requirements.
"The precision required and the attention to detail is just crazy," said the self-described geek. "I think those becoming familiar with the MOS slowly start to realize how much detail is involved and they're turned off. The nerds and geek-types are the ones who really come to appreciate this MOS."
The "nerd and geek-types" who graduate the course are largely assigned to combat arms organizations where thousands of vehicles are assigned and millions and gallons of fuel are used. Alston said it is not unusual for a Soldiers with less than one year of service to be assigned to jobs managing automated fuel labs for large units.
"They have to hit the ground running," she said, "and they have to know what they're doing because they're going to be it."
It's a lot of responsibility for a first termer, but it is more about how the duties are performed, said one instructor.
"It's not hard or difficult, but you do need to be proficient at what you do," said Staff Sgt. Travis Taylor.
Although there will always be a need for fuel testing, said Alston, the MOS has become the casualty of consolidation and downsizing. The schoolhouse will eventually discontinue the MOS and include it as an additional skill identifier for MOSs such as petroleum supply specialist.
It's a matter of when, not if, said Alston.
"Right now, they're working out how they will integrate us and what they're going to do with the existing 92Ls," she said.
The PLS Course currently graduates roughly 280 students per year, said Alston.