WASHINGTON -- Soldiers from the 311th Expeditionary Sustainment Command recently returned from a nine-month deployment to Kuwait after pivoting operations during the COVID-19 pandemic to meet their mission requirements.
The 311th ESC, a Reserve unit headquartered in Los Angeles, California, departed to Camp Arifjan in May 2020 before returning home in early January, said Brig. Gen. John Dreska, its commanding general.
The command maintained oversight of a field support and two sustainment brigades that operated across Kuwait and Iraq, unit officials said during an Army Current Operations Engagement Tour discussion Wednesday. The 311th ESC also served as the single sustainment node for postal, finance, transportation, movement control, ammunition, and other services throughout the 13-country area of responsibility.
"COVID-19 was probably the overarching challenge for every single Soldier and leader during this deployment," said Command Sgt. Maj. H.H. George Luedtke, the command’s senior enlisted leader.
Luedtke said the 311th ESC arrived at Fort Hood, Texas, a week before the virus restricted training and impacted operations. Leaders across all levels of echelon had to adapt quickly to complete unit mobilization training on time.
Logistical challenges created by the pandemic extended the unit's stay at Fort Hood for close to 20 days, he added. The extra time allowed the 311th ESC to engage in added preparation, including a series of virus control and mitigation training scenarios.
"When we got into theater, the big challenge was making sure that [the virus] didn't spread within our unit," Luedtke said. "The other concern … was to make sure [COVID-19] didn't spread and close down the theater hub in Kuwait."
With prevention measures in place, the 311th ESC had zero cases until the final weeks of their deployment, Luedtke added. Teamwork across all levels ensured the safety of all personnel and allowed Camp Arifjan to remain open.
As a rotational unit in Kuwait, the 304th Sustainment Brigade under the 311th ESC had to deal with an added layer of complexity caused by border closures and contractor movement restrictions, brigade officials said.
The brigade had to quickly develop and implement sanitization procedures at the Khabari border crossing between Iraq and Kuwait, brigade officials said. Leaders also instituted exceptions to policy to help move military cargo and personnel between the countries, while measures were put in place to sanitize all cargo vehicles at the border.
Additionally, a reduction in contractors from 5,800 personnel to just under 70 in Kuwait created a significant gap in operations, unit officials said. The brigade later identified around 250 mission critical contractors and allowed them to resume operations after completing a mandatory on-post quarantine.
The 304th SB relied on Soldiers to augment mission requirements as they shifted into roles within the central receiving shipping point and supply support activity, along with postal, wash-rack, and transportation operations.
Under "Task Force Scooby," unit leaders identified personnel with Class A and Class B licenses and capable of driving a 44-passenger bus or a vehicle with a manual transmission. Selected personnel were then authorized to operate a 22-passenger bus nicknamed "Scooby," which bared a close resemblance to the cartoon van.
In total, Soldiers drove 17 buses and two box trucks during continuous 24-hour operations. The task force supported the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division’s redeployment from Iraq, and the division’s 2nd BCT deployment to replace Soldiers in the same region.
The 304th SB's efforts bridged a four-month gap with no contractor bus support, unit officials added.
COVID-19 also impacted sustainment operations as the Army worked to close down bases throughout the Middle East. The closure of Camp Taji in Iraq proved to be difficult during the pandemic, as the camp's supply stock was considered the largest in theater, officials said.
"As you close and consolidate, it presented a lot of challenges for the team -- especially for our junior level NCOs and officers," Dreska said.
The 304th SB relocated portions of supplies to Camp Buehring, Kuwait, while the remainder of Taji's stock was transported to Camp Arifjan to be sorted. With no contractors in place, Soldiers were assigned to help sort and dispose the influx of supplies.