PORT ARTHUR, Texas --Shortly before sunset, April 18, the U.S. Naval Ship Benavidez left the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and made its way up the twists and turns of the Saint Johns River to dock at birth 10 at JAXPORT, Jacksonville Florida's primary civilian ocean terminal.
The Benavidez is a large, medium speed roll-on/roll-off and of the Bob Hope class of transport carriers and at 954 ft. in length, it is the largest in the Navy fleet and has been known to hold more than 2,000 individual containers and vehicles.
Its arrival heralded the start of a major logistics operation ultimately involving four of the five military branches, a mesh of military commands and a legion of military and civilian transportation specialists working rail and sea port operations in both Florida and Texas.
Their mission - to get the vehicles and cargo from Fort Campbell's 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) onto a Navy asset, then transported and unloaded as quickly and safely as possible at a distant and unfamiliar sea port.
Although this particular move will cover only 950 pieces of equipment moving by land and sea, the cargo could easily be diverted and headed to any trouble spot throughout the world; the game plan and concept of operation would still be the same.
The Army equipment left Fort Campbell by rail and arrived earlier in the week to the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility (ICTF) at JAXPORT, a tiny spot of land in the middle of the St. James River and about ten miles northwest of Jacksonville.
From there, active duty Soldiers from Fort Campbell's famed 101st Air Assault Division and Army Reservists from across the state of Florida, conveyed the vehicles to the JAXPORT civilian terminal to await the planned arrival of the USNS Benavidez.
"This mission is a big deal for us because many of the Soldiers haven't done this type of exercise in a long time. By integrating the active and reserve military components, the Army can project itself from the continental U.S. and abroad. Performing this mission requires us to get back to doing business the way we did 16 years ago," said Navy Lt. Commander DeAundrae Rogers, 832nd Transportation Battalion Executive Officer for the 832nd Transportation Battalion, 596th Transportation Brigade". "Sealift Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercises such as this gives Soldiers a lot of valuable training so when it's time to deploy, they can reflect back on this training and the lessons learned as an important tool to guide them in the future."
"One reason this SEDRE is such a big deal for the 101st Air Assault Division, and everyone else involved, is because they are performing all of the tasks normally performed by contracted stevedores," Rogers said. "They are getting back to transportation basics and reestablishing tactic, techniques and procedures for seaport operations, which have been under-utilized since the War on Terror."
Stevedore is the name given to those tasked with loading and unloading ships.
"What also makes this particular mission significant for us is that we are using the civilian cruise terminal for loading operations here at JAXPORT; something we've not done before," added Army Capt. David Wallace, Operations Officer for the 832nd Trans. Bn. "Jacksonville is considered a Department of Defense strategic port and is vital to the overall security of the United States. The SEDRE gives us and the JAXPORT Authorities the opportunity to test the capabilities of the new ICTF and civilian cruise terminal.
Ultimately, the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team's move to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., is more than just an exercise in getting equipment from point "A" to point "B". It is actually a series of exercises stacked back-to-back and is designed to test troops in extreme and unfamiliar circumstances to see how they will respond to challenges and then learning from their actions."
It all started with exercise "Turbo Activation" days earlier.
The Military Sealift Command ordered the USNS BENAVIDEZ to Jacksonville with orders to deliver the 101st Airborne's 3rd Brigade Combat Team to Port Arthur, Texas as quickly as possible.
"When activated, we can crew the ship within 24-hours and be under weigh within 96-hours," said Scott Kreger, captain of the BENAVIDEZ. "The only real limitation in getting the ship out to sea quickly is in how fast the airlines can get the crew to the port."
As the vessel was being staffed and preparing to depart its home base, the 3BCT had already loaded their equipment onto rail and was pushing south to Jacksonville.
"What makes this mission interesting is that it involves so many different modes of transportation," said 1LT Bryan Diffley, 690th Rapid Port Opening Element's forward node officer in charge. "These vehicles left Fort Campbell by rail, then made their way to Port Arthur, Texas, by sea, then will convoy JRTC in Louisiana. This took a lot of coordination at so many levels to make it work and keep accountability of all the equipment."
What sets the 597th Transportation Brigade apart from other transportation brigades is not just the uniqueness and jointness of its missions, but also the way in which it is structured and how it goes about accomplishing its mission.
"Our brigade is built of military and civilians, young and old, who bring a lot of experience to the table," said 1st Lt. Craig Champlain, Operations Officer for the 833rd Transportation Battalion. "With the increased complexity of modern missions, comes the increased need for real-time information by ground level commanders. Our senior and more experienced civilians were doing cargo movement and tracking long before automation and have developed ways for naturally keeping mental track of everything going on at a the ports, while our younger Soldiers who have grown up in the social media age have become more adept at information sharing. Our emphasis now is to meld the two strengths in a way in which 'old school' knowledge combines with 'new school' information sharing capabilities."
Besides being an Operations Officer for the 833rd, Champlain is also the Knowledge Management and Future Operations Officer for the unit.
"Knowledge management is the processes of capturing, distributing and effectively using knowledge to feed the commander's decision cycle," Champlain said. "At the tactical level, information is data, and knowledge is when that information becomes actionable by individual Soldiers, the commander, his staff or lower leadership on the ground."
Breaking it down into layman's terms, Champlain explained that the goal to handling more complex port operations such as those conducted at Jacksonville and Port Arthur lies in getting the right information, to the right person, in the right context, at the right time….or as he calls it "getting it to them at the speed of relevant."
597th Trans. Bde. leadership is doing just that by making increased use of an internet based information sharing program called "Intelshare."
"The challenge has always been in how to get the maximum amount of actionable information to the most people in a convenient way," stressed Champlain. "We need those individuals and units to our left and right, above and below, to be able to view and study every aspect of our operations in real time. This includes weather alerts, security status, vessel arrival times, vessel capabilities and vehicle tracking data. Intelshare does that."
"During the JTF-PO mission in Port Arthur, Naval Expeditionary Port Units and Cargo Handling Units, the Defense Logistics Agency, the 690th RPOE, cargo management civilians, the 833rd Trans. Bn. and 597th Trans. Bde. were all able to access information and communicate and exchange information freely across," explained Champlain. "They could get the information and data they needed without having to be here…even if they are on the other side of the globe."
"Being 'old school' I was of course skeptical at first when I heard of the knowledge management initiative and using Intelshare as a tool for accomplishing it," said Larry Lawrence, Senior Cargo Specialist with the 597th Transportation Brigade. "But once I saw it in operation, I became a firm believer. At a glance I knew Intelshare was a system which shared some characteristics with popular social media sites and I knew the younger soldiers would take to it immediately. In the past, it was very easy for units and departments to operate in a bubble, but now we have the capability to share mission data and have it viewed at a single source, by anyone with an Intelshare account and Common Access Card."
Lawrence, a cargo specialist with 21 years of military experience and nearly equal number years as a civilian cargo specialist said he views information and intelligence sharing as critical to 597th transportation operations.
"The real challenge is getting some of the 'old school' thinkers to recognize and utilize the 'new school' way of thinking and technology," Lawrence said. "I believe it is the only way to remain relevant and fully mission capable in the information age."
Besides being an early adopter of cutting-edge information sharing technology and effectively using it, the brigade also credit its success to a seasoned civilian workforce whose average age is 55 and of which nearly all are former military transportation specialists on active duty.
"The 597th Trans. Bde. is like no other transportation brigade in the entire Army. Exclusive to us are the Rapid Port Opening Elements, of which there are only three," said Col. Stephen Riley, 597th Trans. Bde. commander. "The expeditionary nature of our RPOE missions and their ability to quickly deploy and function autonomously in austere environments anywhere in the world, coupled with the vast knowledge pool and experience of our civilian transport specialists, is what really sets us apart."