The 597th Transportation Brigade was responsible for the movement of about 34,000 pieces of unit equipment and vehicles in Fiscal Year 2016.
The 597th's 841st Transportation Battalion, based out of Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, recently uploaded about 350 vehicles onto the Motor Vessel Arc Honor before it set sail toward the U.S. Army Europe area of operations.
However, before all that happened, there was an extensive process involved in getting the wheels of those vehicles in motion to be transported.
"It starts off with a port call message that lets us know a vessel is coming in," said Sgt. 1st Class Julian Alvarez, 841st terminal operations NCOIC. "Once the arrival date for the vessel is published, the process of booking cargo to it begins."
Alvarez said vessels can come from anywhere including directly from the Middle East or right up the street in the downtown Port of Charleston.
Once the arrival date for the vessel is in place, the cargo starts to come in. In the case of the MV Honor, most of the cargo comes from the Army Strategic Logistics Activity - Charleston (ASLAC).
"They (ASLAC) support pushing out armored vehicles and equipment for this area," Alvarez said.
Cargo can come from manufacturers or refitting stations as it did with the MV Honor, but that's not always the case.
"Sometimes unit equipment is sent directly from a home station in preparation for a deployment," Alvarez said. "If it's an aviation unit, they have the capability to fly down here and then we'd designate landing zones and stage the birds."
The time it takes for cargo to arrive to the staging yard can vary depending on where it's coming from and how it is being transported.
"It can take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks," Alvarez said. "It's really dependent on the mission itself."
Alvarez said once the cargo arrives on site, it's verified by checkers who are out physically at the yard primarily using the Global Air Transportation Execution System (GATES).
"From that, we build an on-hand report," he said. "Once the on-hard report shows that everything was booked in the system through the integrated booking system (IBS) sustainment, then we know we have everything on ground that's supposed to be loaded. Once we verify we have everything in the yard, we prep for the vessel arrival."
The 841st operations section then develops a stow plan on board the vessel using the Integrated-Computerized Deployment System (I-CODES).
"When the stow plan is developed, they have a layout of the ship, the I-CODES, so they can 'plug-and-play' where each piece of equipment is going to go with proper dimensions," Alvarez said. "Before anything touches the vessel, they already know where it's going to go."
He added that it's important to make sure the vessel isn't loaded top-heavy so the vessel can move safely. Vehicles are tracked and documented using a transportation control number and model number.
"It pretty much tells you what it is and where it's going," said Sgt. Lekisha Montgomery, 841st I-CODES NCO.
Montgomery said she likes her job, despite its tedious nature.
"I love seeing all the different trucks and boxes that come through," she said. "You get to learn what they are, where they're going and how they'll get there. One of the best parts is that I'm on a ship. It's really awesome. This is the bread and butter. This is why I joined up."
Montgomery, who's been a cargo specialist since 2013, has learned how to deal with the controlled chaos involved with an upload.
"You have to stay very alert," she said. "The workers (stevedores) are here to do a job and that's to make sure everything comes on board. We try to stay out of their way as much as possible and still do our job at the same time."
Staff Sgt. Jasmin Powell, 841st marine cargo specialist, works to make sure vehicles are uploaded in accordance with the stow plan and that they are latched in a secure and orderly manner.
"My favorite part of this job is ensuring that our warfighters have what they need -- making sure that cargo gets loaded correctly -- that there are no damages and no one gets injured," Powell said. "The teamwork and cohesion is good. Everybody stays on the same page. Communication is great between us and the stevedores. We work great together."
The workload for upload procedures is delved out between Soldiers and stevedores.
"For our AO (area of operations) specifically, we work with the civilian stevedores who do the physical aspect of actually moving the equipment on the vessel," Alvarez said. "Soldiers from the unit will provide oversight and expertise and make sure everything is done safely and in accordance with appropriate guidelines. They also provide oversight of the vehicles and equipment."
Alvarez added that a safety brief takes place before anyone starts touching equipment.
"After the safety briefing, they immediately start moving the first few pieces on board," he said.
For a 350-piece movement, it takes an estimated 10 hours and a team of about 17, about eight of which are Soldiers who upload and properly stow the equipment properly on board a vessel with a goal to begin shipment the same day.
"Accountability is paramount because there are so many moving pieces," Alvarez said of the process. "It's almost controlled chaos in that you have equipment being uploaded going to different areas of the ship simultaneously."
If equipment is loaded in the wrong spot, vehicles may have to be unlatched, which can be time-consuming and costly. The accountability is anything to avoid delays -- making sure everything is done safely and correctly, Alvarez said. He added that communication and teamwork between the Soldiers and stevedores is important and also a challenge they have to overcome.
"If you're deep on a vessel, cell phone reception doesn't work," Alvarez said. "Radios won't always function because it's a metal vessel."
Vehicles typically shipped may include Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAPS), armored vehicles or unit-level equipment, according to Alvarez.
"If it moves or if it supports the warfighter out in the field, then we move it," he said.