Soldiers and civilians of the 597th Transportation Brigade spent about two weeks in early June supporting Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore 2016 in Washington along with elements from 7th Transportation Brigade (expeditionary), also from based out of Fort Eustis, Virginia, as well as fellow members of the other branches of the U.S. armed forces and civilian and federal agencies.
JLOTS 2016 was a scenario-based exercise that tested the ability of numerous military, federal, and civilian organizations to work together to provide humanitarian assistance in the event of an emergency or disaster.
"We got here in response to a 9.0 magnitude earthquake which caused mass-scale disruption," said 1st Lt. Robert Robinson, 833rd Transportation Battalion, training officer in charge and JLOTS battle captain.
"We're a single-port manager," Robinson said during JLOTS. "We're in charge of making sure that the cargo management center is operational."
As part of the exercise in Washington, the 597th established a joint operations center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a cargo management center at the Port of Tacoma, and a small element for documentation and cargo tracking at Naval Magazine Indian Island, about two hours north of JBLM, Robinson said. Joint Task Force 7 (7th Bde.), co-located with 597th provided logistics support vessels and landing craft utility vehicles during the exercise.
"Their personnel are providing the manpower for execution," Robinson said during JLOTS. "They're doing the cargo download portion and we're tracking and managing to make sure everything gets where it needs to be."
Robinson and other battle captains gave status update briefings to Col. Stephen Riley, 597th commander, and 597th Command Sgt. Maj. Jerome Smalls, which included pertinent information related to the exercise and was a platform for JLOTS-related questions and discussion, such as finding out when Ramadan was observed and the threat of a possible suicide bomber as part of the exercise.
Riley commended the staff which included junior officers, noncommissioned officers and junior enlisted Soldiers on their performance in the positions they occupied during the exercise, which in a real-life scenario would be ran by more robust, senior personnel, including Riley's position which would typically be occupied by a general officer.
"It's been great," Riley said. "I know there's been some hiccups here and there. This staff should be much more senior in rank. It's really remarkable what you guys have done. Closing out his remarks during a June 13 briefing Riley said, "You guys are doing an awesome job. Thank you so much."
Smalls echoed Riley's sediment about the role Surface Deployment and Distribution Command/597th and its Soldiers and civilians -- senior and junior played in the exercise.
"We've never been the mission command for a JLOTS," Small said. "The team has grown very well together."
In a real-world scenario, the staff would need to be larger, however the circumstances provided a unique opportunity for the personnel involved in JLOTS.
"I believe this experience put them above their peers," Smalls said. "They were able to see things from a strategic level -- from a general officer level pushed down to the units."
In response to local populous needs, food and water (referred to as Class 1) and medical supplies (Class 8) were prioritized as areas of need. Robinson said they also received an additional request from SDDC higher headquarters for Class 1 and 2 (clothing and shelter).
"Everything has gone very smoothly," Robinson said. He said the organizations (including the other branches of service, Northern Command, State Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency) effectively used Intelink to share information during JLOTS.
"We're a small part of getting the cargo from the sea to where it needs to be," Robinson said.
Capt. Charles Hill, 690th Rapid Port Opening Element operations officer, was working out of the Port of Tacoma during JLOTS for about a week and a half, but also had some Soldiers working at Naval Magazine Indian Island. The beginning of the exercise featured setting up the tents and CMC for the exercise as well as appearances from DVs (distinguished visitors such as general officers, international service members, congressmen and other dignitaries).
"There were 300 containers of the classes of supplies (food and water, medical supplies, building materials, shelters and blankets) that we offloaded here (Port of Tacoma) and up at Naval Magazine (Indian Island) -- split with 150 at each site," Hill said. "Our job was to track the cargo and make sure it got from the ship to the right place without losing visibility of it."
Hill said the 690th worked with the 841st, 842nd, and 11th Trans. Bns. along with the 677th Automated Cargo Documentation Detachment (Army Reserves).
"They're the ones actually unloading the cargo from the ship to the port and then forward to the central shipping point," Hill said of the 11th. During JLOTS, Hill said, "It's gone pretty well as far as the tracking goes. Any container that comes off the ship, once it hits the pier, we scan it with our GATES scanner."
Hill said pieces of cargo that come off the ship get uploaded to a server that can be uploaded anywhere in the world.
"That's gone pretty well -- working in conjunction with the 11th," Hill said during JLOTS. "They've tried different avenues of offloading the ship -- stabbing the beach with a floating pier, utilizing LSVs and LCUs to transfer the cargo from ship to shore. The point of the exercise is to figure out what system works best, get that in place, and implement into an exercise where we would be able to upload several thousands of pieces of cargo. I feel like as far as tracking goes, we've developed that system. It's totally automated. It's as simple as it can get. As fast as they can offload the ship, we can track it using the GATES scanners."
Hill said he'd feel content in a real-world situation working with the same units and personnel that the 690th worked with during JLOTS.
"I'd feel very comfortable working jointly with the exact same units," Hill said. "The structure works, it's just that we'd be operating with different units that are similar." He said there might be temporary friction at the beginning while the units learn how to operate jointly.
"Once that would get ironed out, things would flow pretty smoothly," Hill said.
Pfc. Hailey Varnum, transportation management coordinator with 690th was part of the process of helping things run smoothly at the Port of Tacoma by tracking and managing cargo, despite obstacles such as rain, which is often a factor in Washington.
"So far the weather's been pretty good," Varnum said on the afternoon of June 13, toward the end of JLOTS. However, the CMC knew a storm was imminent within the hour and everyone was prepared. At that time, Varnum said if there was lightning or anything, they would have stop part of the operation. That scenario came into fruition, but the team was prepared in advance and in a position to deal with the elements by not having to deal with the elements.
"We're ahead of schedule," she said at the time. She added that her level, the job was to move the cargo where it needed to go. "We've done a good job with that -- getting stuff where it needs to go," Varnum said. "That's pretty important."
Now that JLOTS is in the rear-view mirror, Riley re-emphasized how critical the exercise was.
"JLOTS 2016 is just proof that SDDC's capabilities and responsibilities as a single port manager are crucial whether or not we're using commercial facilities with civilian longshoremen or JLOTS capabilities and military stevedores," Riley said. "SDDC has to be involved to ensure they get the cargo equipment to the supported command in a timely manner and with the correct documentation and in-transit visibility. We were able to execute the mission and complete it successfully despite resource constraints. We are at the highest level of training readiness and we're just going to get better from here on out."