By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneOctober 7, 2009
Moving is a way of life for any Army family. But these days, moving from one post to another has taken on a whole new dimension for Col. Lee Merritt and his command staff at the 59th Ordnance Brigade/Ordnance Munitions and Electronics Maintenance School.
While the brigade's move to the Missile and Munitions Center at Fort Lee, Va., is still more than a year away, the spring of 2011 looms large on Merritt's radar as he reviews plans to move office and classroom furniture, training and simulation equipment, and instructional supplies as well as staff and students - all while still maintaining the educational and training experiences provided by OMEMS.
"Our first goal is to continue to provide quality training with feedback from the field. We want to train Soldiers so they will be prepared to hit their unit on day one of a deployment and fight and win our nation's battles," said Merritt, who will be the last commander of the 59th/OMEMS at Redstone Arsenal.
"At the same time, we need to be preparing to execute BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommendations) and move to Fort Lee. We will have lots of great facilities there that will give us more capability because they are built to meet our needs at today's standards. And, third, we need to take care of our people, both civilian and military, primarily because of BRAC. Anytime you have such a large organization move it impacts a lot of folks."
There are about 1,100 military and civilian personnel from the 59th/OMEMS who conduct and support training in 39 military occupational specialties in the areas of munitions management, explosive ordnance disposal, electronic and missile maintenance, and test measurement and diagnostic equipment arenas. Each year, the staff at Redstone trains about 6,000 Soldiers, who are assigned to the 832nd Ordnance Battalion. Since its inception in 1952, OMEMS has graduated more than 190,000 students.
The 59th was first constituted in 1943, with units serving in World War II and the Korean War, and 20 campaigns. It was deactivated in 1992, and reactivated at Redstone in 1994 when it merged with the Ordnance Missile and Munitions Center and School, becoming the Ordnance Missile and Munitions Center and School/59th Ordnance Brigade. In 2002, the school was renamed the Ordnance Munitions and Electronics Maintenance School/59th Ordnance Brigade. The 59th/OMEMS also includes about 200 staff and support staff assigned to the 73rd Ordnance Battalion at Fort Gordon, Ga., and training detachments at Fort Bliss, Texas; Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.; and Fort Sill, Okla.
As part of the BRAC moves, the 61st Ordnance Brigade (Ordnance Mechanical Maintenance School) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., will merge its 11 military occupational specialties with the 59th/OMEMS.
"The 61st is in the process of moving to Fort Lee now. When they merge with us, we will grow another battalion of the 59th," Merritt said.
"We do have a good plan that will allow us to move in a compressed time frame without skipping a beat with our training of Soldiers. But we will take the lessons learned by the 61st as they move and we will apply them to our organization. They will be there nearly a year before we move, so they will know the best practices for making the move a success."
At Redstone, Merritt's objective is to keep the organization's employees updated about BRAC plans. He is hosting town hall meetings every three months, and the command staff has met with every OMEMS employee to discuss moving to Fort Lee or staying at Redstone. The 59th has published a booklet of resumes of its employees who want to remain at Redstone after the move. The booklet has been made available to other Arsenal organizations.
"It's important to try to help your civilians during a transition like this," Merritt said. "We have civilians leaving us for other jobs all the time and that's part of the challenge of BRAC. Next year, we will train almost 11,500 Soldiers in all our locations, and we've got to have the staff to support that, even though we are moving. This is truly a team of contractors, civilians and military working together to provide quality Soldiers to meet the requirements of our Army."
Merritt knows what it's like to be in a support role to Soldiers. He assumed command of the 59th in June, following a two-year assignment where he stood up and commanded the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Riley, Kan.
"It was an idea from our commanding general (Maj. Gen. Robert Durbin). We worked with local businessmen on the project," Merritt said. "It was a program that allowed Soldiers, while they were on duty, to do work that would reintegrate them and let them build skill sets that they didn't get in the Army so they could transition back into civilian life.
"Anytime you leave the service and make the transition, it can be difficult. But when you have injuries, it is even more traumatic. The program was designed to ease some of their fears and let them know they still can be a valuable member of their community. It helped them find jobs and gave them the skill sets to find those jobs quickly and easily."
The WTU and, now, his command at Redstone, are ideal jobs for a Soldier's Soldier who is determined to make a difference as an Army leader. Growing up in Seaford, Del., Merritt always wanted to be a Soldier.
"My mom will tell you that for the longest time I wanted to join the Army," he recalled. "I always thought it was a noble profession. As I got older, I also saw it as a way to get some skills, go out and see the world, and get some opportunities. It offered a lot more than the opportunities I had living in a small town in Delaware."
Although he began his military career in 1986 as a chemical officer and an armor platoon leader, Merritt transferred to the Ordnance Corps early in his career, serving as a mechanical maintenance ordnance officer and, currently, as a multi-functional logistician.
"I've worked in positions at the tactical, operational and strategic levels," Merritt said. "Everywhere I've worked, I've just loved being around Soldiers. And coming here to Redstone Arsenal, I can't help but be motivated because I see all these young Soldiers. They join for lots of different reasons. But they are so full of energy, they want to learn and they want to go out and do great things. They still have that spark in the eyes."
Merritt served with the 24th Forward Support Battalion as a shop officer and then as a division class IX accountable officer, the position he held during his first deployment to Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. He has served in officer positions with the 3rd Division at the Division Materiel Management Center and with Bravo Company, 603rd Aviation Support Battalion, both in Germany; at the Ordnance Center and Schools, Aberdeen Proving Ground; with the 201st Forward Support Battalion and at the Division Materiel Management Center for the 1st Infantry Division in Germany. In 1997, he returned to Germany, where he served as the support operations officer for the 201st Forward Support Battalion; and then as chief of the Division Materiel Management Center in the 1st Infantry Division.
Merritt again deployed in wartime as a supply and services officer and operations officer for the Coalition Forces Land Component Command during Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom 1 and 2; and then, again in 2006-07, as commander of the 541st Combat Sustainment Support Battalion in support of Multi-National Division-Baghdad.
"Between four deployments, I've seen the Army push responsibility for operations down to smaller and smaller units," Merritt said. "Compared to 10 years ago, decisions that were being made by captains and sergeants first class are now being made by sergeants and staff sergeants. And they're making those decisions and executing those decisions extremely well because of their training."
He agreed that deployments are hard on families, including his own wife Anjela and their three children. But he also said the tremendous community and church support his family received made the deployments more manageable.
Merritt, who joined the Army at a time of relative peace, is amazed by the young people who are joining today's Army.
"The great thing about today's Soldiers is they know their chance of deployment is high, but they join anyway and then they re-enlist," he said. "Even in a high up-tempo environment, Soldiers are committed to staying in the Army and prepared to be the best they can. It's truly a testament to our society. The Soldier stands for something and that's what people see."
The wartime environment seems to deepen commitments, strengthen bonds and focus Soldiers.
"When they know they're going to war, they listen a lot better," Merritt said. "Most of our instructors are combat veterans and our Soldiers want to learn everything they can from them.
"Today's Soldier needs to be a team member. They need to know how to be technically and tactically proficient in their skills. We spend quite a bit of time talking about Army values. It's not about what your values are. It's about living the Army values every single day, 24/7."
Besides being physically fit and highly trained, effective Soldiers also must be motivated.
"That's easy when it's sunny and 70 degrees," Merritt said. "But it's not so easy when its 130 and you're wearing body armor and carrying a 70-pound rucksack and you've been up for 20 hours. We put stressors on our Soldiers so that they build their ability and confidence as they prepare to go down range."
The Army, he said, offers a job for anyone who wants to be a Soldier.
"Find out the job you want to do, research it and make an informed decision. There are so many job skills in the Army that there is something for everyone," Merritt said. "There is something that you will enjoy in the Army. I can guarantee that. It's a matter of finding out what you like to do and pursue it. If you love it, it won't feel like a job."
In the few months he's been at Redstone, Merritt has come to appreciate the strong working relationship between the 59th/OMEMS and other entities at Redstone. He's also become familiar with the community and the supportive relationship it has with Redstone Arsenal Soldiers.
"This community really cares about Soldiers," Merritt said. "We will really miss that. But at the same time, we are hopeful that the Fort Lee community will be as strong in its support of Soldiers. It will be tough, no doubt, for us to leave Redstone and the community. There is definitely a strong connection here and it will be sad day when we finally start our move."