VICENZA, Italy -- Thousands of miles away from home, two Soldiers in their early twenties find themselves inspecting million-dollar cargo on a foreign airfield. If the cargo is up to par, it flies. If it's not, the two-person team faces an awkward, but critical conversation.
Imperfect cargo forces the young team to approach foreign, senior military officers and explain why their cargo will not take flight. The consequences of grounding cargo stretch from the airfield they stand on to combatant commanders, embassies and sometimes, the Pentagon.
Soldiers from the 383rd Movement Control Team face this responsibility on a regular basis.
The 383rd MCT is a forward-deployed, 21-person unit with a captain and staff sergeant leading the charge. One of their missions is to conduct joint inspections on cargo scheduled to depart Africa on U.S. Department of Defense aircraft.
"Most of these guys, before they came here, have never been on an airplane before and now they are flying all around the world by themselves," said Staff Sgt. Sean Carrigan, 383rd MCT detachment sergeant.
"All of our Soldiers are very young, all of our noncommissioned officers except one are sergeants, and they typically travel to the continent with just one NCO and one Soldier," Carrigan explained.
The MCT arrived in Vicenza, Italy, from Fort Polk, Louisiana, in January 2017 as the first MCT assigned to U.S. Army Africa. Since then, the MCT has conducted 20 missions in support of U.S. Special Forces and NATO allies in 11 countries, including Botswana, Burkina Faso, Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Tunisia and Uganda.
"We didn't replace anyone. There are no steps. There is no (standard operating procedure) for any of this. Over time in the last eight months, we figured out who to talk to and who can help us out," said Capt. Timothy Clapp, the 383rd MCT commander.
On any given day, at least two members of the small team are in Chad inspecting cargo for French allies. However, the team regularly takes initiative and assists partners and allies with tracking incoming aircraft and establishing an aircraft parking plan. "It's more than just the cargo prep; it's managing the flight line," Carrigan said.
Every 4-6 months, the MCT travels across Africa to support France's surge, or relief in place. In just three weeks, the MCT inspected more than 3,000 French soldiers' personal and professional equipment.
"One day they are inspecting heavily up-armored Land Rovers and the next they are inspecting explosives," Clapp said.
Clapp added that the MCT makes a recommendation, but at the end of the day, it is up to the flight crew to decide whether or not the cargo will fly. However, the approval process does not dampen the significance of the MCT's recommendation. If improperly packaged explosives board an airplane, lives are at risk.
"A specialist walks out to the flight line and inspects the cargo. They are the ones signing that HAZMAT paperwork," Clapp said. "They are the ones saying, 'Yes, everything is prepared correctly and good to go.'"
Clapp and Carrigan implemented a new training plan after assessing the unusual equipment revealed on African flight lines. The most unusual piece of equipment they have inspected? A jet engine.
The epitome of mission command, Clapp says their unique operations bring new meaning to principle: exercising disciplined initiative.
"Let's take a Soldier traveling to a mission in Botswana, for example. It takes 24 hours to get down there and once they hit the ground they have to take another five-hour truck ride to somebody we have never met before," Carrigan said, speaking specifically about one of their missions supporting special forces.
The operational tempo of special forces does not usually allow for ample predictability. After the Soldiers arrive, they have to figure out their own life support including food, water and a place to sleep.
Clapp and Carrigan aren't afraid of overcoming challenges using innovative tactics and any resource available. MCT Soldiers deployed to Africa typically communicate with their leadership in Italy via social media applications.
"For us, readiness is a little bit different. Our guys have to be ready to go, literally at a moment's notice," Clapp said. "We had one Soldier gone for four months and when he returned, he was here less than a week before we said 'we need you to go to Chad.'"
"I told him Friday and he left Monday," Carrigan added.
Clapp and Carrigan said their young Soldiers are the reason for their team's success. They said their team conducts these critical missions with confidence and maturity far beyond the expectation.
"It takes a lot of maturity. But I know these guys can go anywhere and we have full confidence in them and they can make it happen," Clapp said. "All this is paving the road for the follow-on MCT."
The 259th MCT out of Fort Hood, Texas, will arrive to USARAF in October and fall in on the strategies and tactics pioneered by the 383rd MCT.