By Mr. Zack Shelby (597th Transportation Brigade)November 21, 2016
When the 689th Rapid Port Opening Element deployed to Haiti in October as part of Joint Task Force Hurricane Matthew, it marked the third time in six years that an RPOE's capabilities were displayed to bring disaster relief to an area of need, including twice to Haiti.
The 689th RPOE was part of a joint task force which provided humanitarian assistance by coordinating the receipt, sorting, and delivering of supplies to the hardest hit areas of Haiti following the hurricane.
The 688th and 689th RPOEs also deployed to Haiti in January 2010 as part of Operation United Response in the wake of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake to support Air Mobility Command C-17s in operating an aerial port of disembarkation.
In September 2014, the 688th RPOE deployed to Liberia to help combat the spread of Ebola in West Africa during Operation United Assistance. The 690th RPOE, the newest of the three has provided support during the deployments and could be called upon anywhere around the world if it is the "alert" RPOE for a Joint Task Force Port Opening mission.
When called upon, the RPOE's mission is to be trained and ready to deploy within 48 hours to any location where operational requirements generate a need to open a port as quickly as possible.
The RPOEs, which fall under the 833rd Transportation Battalion and 597th Transportation Brigade based at Fort Eustis, Virginia, have garnered enough attention because of their unique capabilities and successful previous deployments to be documented for its contingent capabilities.
Richard Killblane, Transportation Corps historian, covered the RPOEs in Haiti and West Africa, witnessing first-hand its value and potential for timeless appeal. As a military historian, Killblane constantly receives feedback from veterans expressing interest in their units, its history, and documentation highlighting what they and their fellow service members accomplished.
"They know what they did, but they also want to know how their little part fit into the big picture," Killblane said.
The overflow of veteran inquiries sparked Killblane's idea of writing unit histories. His focus is typically battalion-level histories and companies with unique capabilities.
"That's why I got into the (idea) of writing the history of the RPOEs -- not as a history, but their role in contingencies," he said.
Killblane was embedded as a historian with 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command in Haiti in 2010. That's where he rediscovered the RPOEs.
"I was already aware of the RPOEs and I found them to be very interesting organizations because of the rapid deployment concept -- everything revolves around that," Killblane said. To be the first Army transportation unit on the ground during a contingency is a concept that intrigued Killblane.
"It is an interesting mix of capability," Killblane said. "It's a little bit of everything. It can be task-organized to fit almost any situation.
Although Killblane was also documenting other units in Haiti in 2010 and 2014 in West Africa, during October's deployment, his focus was exclusively on the RPOEs.
"With three deployments, this is getting pretty significant," Killblane said. Because he's been documenting along the way, it's just a matter of piecing everything together.
"I think I can give you guys (the RPOEs) a history," he said. "It's a logical process."
In final preparations before documenting the RPOEs, Killblane recently interviewed numerous members of the 689th RPOE who recently redeployed, 690th RPOE who provided deployment support, and others within the 833rd Trans. Bn. and 597th Trans. Bde. involved with the most recent Haiti deployment to learn more about how the logistics of the deployment was executed in Haiti and in the rear.
Killblane said the RPOE is all about deploying.
"Everything you train for is to make that deployment and there are not going to be that many contingencies," Killblane said. "Every time you deploy, you validate why you exist."
1st Lt. Simon Johnstone, 689th RPOE forward distribution platoon leader, and cargo distribution yard officer in charge during the Haiti deployment, has had his training validated twice as he was also part of the 2014 West Africa deployment.
"This is what I joined the military to do -- to deploy and support unified land operations," said Johnstone during an interview with Killblane. "I was happy to do it."
Johnstone had the rare opportunity within the RPOE to draw upon experiences of a previous deployment, which served him well in Haiti.
"Having that experience… was really beneficial because I learned from some of the things I could've done better, and also as a unit, what we could've done better," Johnstone said.
About half of the 689th RPOE deployed to Haiti in October while the rest remained in the rear in a supporting role, which could've resulted in a divide between those who went and those who didn't. However, the unit has remained close, which impressed Killblane as well as Capt. Adam Grover, 689th RPOE commander, whom the historian also interviewed.
"We were very cognizant to make sure our guys didn't come back flaunting (their deployment)," Grover said. "We didn't want any division between 'Haiti and non-Haiti.' I think the unit did a good job with that."
He's also seen a little extra boost in the Soldiers since their return. As Grover and Killblane stated, in the RPOE there is constant preparation and training, but it is never known when, or if, that ever translates to a real-world scenario.
"I think they're more invested in the JTF-PO mission," Grover said. "They (now) know that there's a chance we could go somewhere and do something that matters. I think there's a lot more buy-in than there was before this alert cycle."
Killblane's document will be designed to capture the essence of what made RPOE deployments successful and how they created an added sense of purpose and validation for all their training and preparation.
Many years from now when RPOE Soldiers become veterans, they (and their friends and family) will have documentation and memories to reflect upon.