By Sgt. Michael L Reinsch (10th Mountain Division)February 6, 2019
The 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, launched their Rail Load Operations in preparation for their deployment to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana, Jan. 22. Weather conditions played a major role throughout the mission. The unit fought through a historic polar vortex where wind chills reached -30 degrees, intermittent white-out conditions affected visibility, and constant ice made roads treacherous.
"There was a lot of snow, and it had to get cleared," said Sgt. Maj. James Kelley, the operations sergeant major for 1 BCT, 87th Infantry Regiment. "When the trains are under 3 feet of snow and on the tracks, it's just time-consuming."
Performing railhead operations can be dangerous as injuries and even death are possible. The danger is exacerbated by the winter conditions that often pelt northern New York.
"The spectrum of winter conditions -- we had everything," said Kelley. "The coldest it got on us was -30 degrees, which froze all the rail cars. It was like skating at The Gardens in Boston."
"It is already a high-risk operation. We did our risk assessments. We mitigated to the best of our ability, but, every year across the Army, people get killed doing railhead operations," said Kelley. "Luckily, we only had one injury. He was doing all the right things. He was wearing all of his protective gear. He just slipped."
The Soldier who was injured, was only minorly injured, but, if it were not for all of the safeties doing their part and him wearing his protective gear, it could have been worse, said Kelley. What would prevent, or at least lessen the possibility of injuries is if the railhead was updated.
Over the years, 10th Mountain Division has been striving to improve the aging railhead to remain relevant for future operations and ensure the unit is ready to deploy at a moment's notice.
"Our railhead is very difficult to work on because it is very limiting compared to other railheads that I've worked on at other installations," said Kelley. "You can only have a single train in at a time. It's a single load point. It's a single exit point. It's kind of antiquated in comparison to other railhead operations."
Kelley says that a larger, more up-to-date railhead would make the operation safer as well as more efficient. This sentiment is also mirrored by one of the platoon sergeants that worked on the loading operation.
"When the snow melted a little and then re-froze, it made moving some of the vehicles difficult," said Sgt. 1st Class Charles Kohut, 1-87 Infantry Regiment, D Company, 3rd platoon, platoon sergeant. "The slush would build up, some of the ice just got way too slick and some of the vehicles were almost sliding off the cars. We would throw down some salt to melt the ice, but it was too cold and wouldn't melt or would just turn it into more slush."
Working out in the cold can be a difficult task, but one factor that has to be taken into consideration when conducting such a large operation like this is Soldiers being injured from exposure.
"On top of everything, we had a problem with guys staying warm," said Kohut. "They're on top of those trucks in the minus degree winds, gloves getting soaked from snow and ice. We had to rotate them out to get warm for 3-5 minutes before they had to come back. The closest building for them to get warm in was a little less than a mile walk."
This year, all deployment duties were executed in extreme cold conditions with continuous snowfall all week. However, the lake-effect snow, blizzard conditions and a state of emergency being declared in Jefferson County, NY due to the "Winter Vortex" didn't hinder the mission.
"We executed the mission with the equipment we had on hand, and I'm very happy with the results," said Kelley. "It just took a little longer than I had originally wanted."
Despite known limitations about the railhead, Soldiers were determined to load all gear and equipment in a timely manner. Soldiers teamed up with civilian workforces for their assistance and railroad expertise. They had a successful outload, which was approximately 1,000 pieces of equipment loaded in 72 hours.
Even though the Soldiers and civilian workforce came together in a monumental way to accomplish such a difficult task, Kelley does still have his concerns.
"We are on a 96-hour call, so we have to be able to push the entire brigade combat team out of here to fight a real-life war in 96-hours," said Kelley. "The type of railhead and the weather did have an impact on us being able to hit that deadline."
For all of the Soldiers out braving the cold, there was a simple solution to the problem.
"I have seen railhead operations before, and they have gone much faster," said Kohut. "It was just the weather and the old facilities that slowed us down. If we had a facility that was indoors, it would have been much faster."
In addition to the rail yard portion of the movement, there is also another aspect to the deployment to a training area: the line haul. Most of the line-haul portion of the operation is taken care of by civilians who drive military equipment to their destination. Since there was a state of emergency called for the county Fort Drum is located on, most of the trucks tasked to haul the equipment couldn't make it in until after the emergency was lifted. On top of the state of emergency, the amount of snow made it difficult to move equipment and load it once the trucks were able to move.The cold days of preparing equipment for transportation is behind them, and 1 BCT can concentrate on perfecting their profession through the rigorous training at JRTC.