SOUTHPORT, N.C. -- Gathered in long convoys of military trucks, National Guard units from Nebraska, South Carolina and Pennsylvania, thundered through the front gates of Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point, North Carolina, from April to May. Their mission, Operation Patriot Bandoleer, was a rare real-world training opportunity for more than 800 National Guard and 500 Army Reserve Soldiers.

OPB involves the movement and lifecycle management of thousands of tons of ammunition and war reserve materiel in support of the U.S. Army Sustainment Command's Army Prepositioned Stock-3.

This leg of the mission, called Task Force Steel Delivery, included the transportation and redistribution of 526 containers to Joint Munitions Command installations in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Oklahoma and Utah. The units also supported the redistribution of 107 containers of war reserve material and 250 Container Roll In Roll Out Platforms to the Army Strategic Logistics Activity-Charleston, located in South Carolina. TFSD began, March 3 and concludes, May 6.

"I've been in the Nebraska National Guard for 18 years now, and I've never had annual training like this -- it's such a real-life mission to execute," said Capt. Tim Buskirk, project officer S-3 (Operations). The Nebraska National Guard headed the mission this year.

The planning for TFSD began in February 2016, and the operation concludes, May 6.

National Guard units are required to train at least one weekend per month and for two additional weeks out of the year. Soldiers are required to be proficient at their jobs, and they must be ready to deploy. Buskirk said that combining their training with a real operation is invaluable to achieve combat readiness.

"This is a perfect exercise for a unit that is getting ready to mobilize or who could potentially be mobilized," he said. "If we were overseas… they would be hauling containers just like these up and down the road, except it would be in a combat zone."

Military prepositioned stocks are comprised of warehouses filled with equipment and supplies around the world. These stocks are used to increase the speed of military mobilization worldwide, and they serve as deterrents to foreign aggression. Distributed among large ships at sea, APS-3 is the Army's only mobile APS platform, and is a significant military strategic tool.

"The (APS) program is considered the third leg of the strategic triad, prepositioning stocks strategically around the world for initial use until airlift and sealift options can be established to support contingency operations," said Tim Fore, APS director, ASC.

"Linking Reserve component Soldiers to APS stocks redistribution not only supports the Total Force Development concept of the Army, but (also) gives the Soldiers exposure to real-world mission experiences they will need to support humanitarian assistance and contingency operations in the future," said Fore.

The transported ammunition and other APS items were offloaded from the Motor Vessel Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr., in March. The MV Carter is a cargo ship ASC contracts from the Military Sealift Command to fulfill part of APS-3's mission.

Seventeen Army Reserve units from 11 different states worked alongside the National Guard to load the trucks with containers. Reserve Soldiers were at MOTSU to support the installation during Operation Trans Mariner. OTM involves the offloading and on-base transportation of all the cargo that arrives at MOTSU, and is also a real-world mission that trains Soldiers.

"We are integrated into the MOTSU staff, including the contracting staff," said Capt. Jamie Meikle, project officer Trans Mariner 2016, 1179 Transportation Brigade. "We're not just here for training, we are here to actually use our skills. It gets us ready."

Rick Hamilton, plans and training specialist, 596th Transportation Brigade, Military Surface Development and Distribution Command, said support from reservist units is important to Army operations. The 596th TB operates MOTSU, which has one of the only ammunition ports the Army owns.

"That's the way the Army is now, we're relying a lot on the National Guard and a lot on the Reserves," he said.

While at MOTSU, munitions are stored on concrete pads spaced throughout the installation. Each pad is licensed for specific net-explosive loads of munition, and they are each surrounded by small man-made hills called berms. The berms are positioned to redirect explosive forces upwards in case of an accident.

"We are definitely one of a kind," said Hamilton. "We can handle a lot more munitions than, really, any other installation."

Hamilton stressed that while MOTSU can store munitions for short periods of time, it is actually just a transport hub.

"We're not a storage area here, we're more a transit unit," he said. "We like stuff to come in, get discharged, and leave the installation."

1st Lt. Stephen Skelly, operations officer, 1052nd Transportation Company, South Carolina National Guard said that OPB is intense because it involves tight deadlines with real consequences.

"The stress is real; we feel that stress level--our Soldiers feel that," he said. "They know it's a real-world mission. They know that we have to meet our deadlines."

APS-3 staff first identifies which containers need to be offloaded and sent to the installations. Army reservists then offload the containers from the ships and place them on the appropriate pads. Next, National Guard units are assembled, and the Reserve units upload the containers to the trucks. Finally, National Guard units begin their journey across the country.

While en route, the convoys are tracked using equipment that Soldiers might operate while deployed. Maj. Partrese Barr, support operations, 1050th TB, South Carolina National Guard, said that navigating the drivers is not as simple as using a personal GPS system.

"We advise the drivers against using the GPS in their phones, because those generally give the fastest route options, and a lot of the times those routes will be restricted to our trucks," she said. "They might not be able to travel to those areas because the roads might be too narrow, they might be restricted by the type of cargo they are hauling, or there may be a bridge or overpass that is not strong enough for our trucks."

Soldiers involved in the operation agreed that it has helped improve their readiness.

"It enhances our readiness because it gives us an opportunity to get a feeling of what deployed situations could be like -- having to work at a moment's notice, and just get in your machine and still know that the team behind you has your back 100 percent," said Pfc. Liam Artair, 430th Inland Cargo Transfer Company.

Artair, a Mi-Jack operator stationed out of Baltimore, Maryland, said he believes training reservists is important during a time when the Army is downsizing.

"The Reserve and the National Guard are both parts of the Army," he said. "This enhances our ability to deploy, and also makes it so that you don't have to keep such a large active force. In allowing us to operate and train in a real-world scenario, it gives the Army more fluidity."

Sgt. Geoffrey Wideman, motor transport operator, 1055th Transportation Company, South Carolina National Guard, said he thinks his job as one of the drivers is tough but rewarding.

"We are out here to prove a lot to the big Army," he said. "You learn a lot. Sometimes it's tiring, sometimes it's frustrating, but it's always good at the end of the day."

Spc. Robert Lee Aiken, motor transport operator, 1055th TC, South Carolina National Guard, agreed with Wideman.

"This mission, I'm just proud to be a part of it. It's incredible, it really is," he said.

The planning efforts for the next stage of OPB, Task Force Missouri, are already underway. MOTSU and APS leadership met with representatives from the Missouri National Guard and other supporting units on April 13 for an operational briefing and a tour of the installation. TFM is scheduled for August. During the operation, National Guard units plan to redistribute 555 munitions laden containers off of the MV LTC John U. D. Page, and 245 empty containers currently positioned at MOTSU.

"These 800 containers will be the largest OPB training event that we have executed to date," said Fore. "A significant highlight will be the 310 containers taken out to Hawthorne, Nevada," simply because of the sheer scale of the mission, he continued.