By Sgt. Benjamin Kibbey, 367th MPAD, 1st Inf. Div. PAOJuly 20, 2010
CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait -- As U.S. troops continue to make their way out of Iraq, the equipment that has sustained and protected them for the past seven years is being moved out as well.
The responsibility for much of this task falls to the 1st Sustainment Brigade, based at Fort Riley, Kan., deployed here.
Since the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. military has moved from a system in which each unit brought every piece of equipment they would need with them when they deployed to one in which units fall in on gear already in theater. Because of this change, as units leave theater, they take less with them.
When the new status of forces agreement was signed, it set in motion an ongoing operation - the most significant since World War II - that will account for the movement of some two million pieces of equipment out of Iraq.
The 1st SB has addressed this need with the "Durable Express," a regular convoy that goes north empty - sometimes as far as Mosul - and returns full.
"The Durable Express was an initiative that we came up with that provides a predictable, tailorable convoy to the various [Retrograde Assistance Team] and [Mobile Retrograde Assistance Team] yards up north, where a majority of this equipment is located," said Col. Donnie Walker, 1st SB commander from Lineville, Ala.
"We felt that, if we could dedicate convoys to go up and do that, and make it part of the planning process with those we're supporting up north, then it would pay us big dividends, and it has," he said.
At the end of June, the brigade was ahead of schedule for what needed to be moved out of theater.
"Last month [June], we did 104 convoys total," Walker said. "The projection was 73, so we're at about 147 percent, based on the projections of cargo that we were going to move."
Walker said around 80 percent of those convoys were the Durable Express.
The Durable Express convoys are kept predictable by communicating with the yards in the north and tailoring the make-up - with specific trucks being required to move specific equipment - so the convoy that goes north is set up to upload the equipment on the ground, Walker said.
"Before, it might have been just a full convoy of flatbeds," he said. "If it gets up there, and you have 30 [Mine-Resistant Armor-Protected vehicles], and you've got 30 flatbeds, you can't pick it up."
With the progress the brigade has made, Walker said he feels confident they will continue to run ahead of schedule and will finish this phase of the equipment retrograde - scheduled for completion by November - well-ahead of schedule.
In addition, Walker acknowledged the work of the brigade staff, which set up the convoys and track all the details, and specifically the Soldiers in charge of the convoys.
"It's due to a lot of creative thinking, a lot of young convoy commanders at the [staff sergeant] level, the junior noncommissioned officers," Walker said. "Because those are the guys out there running those convoy operations: making good decisions on the road, keeping the vehicles repaired while they're on the road, dealing with the threat that's out there."
Staff Sgt. Rodolfo Rojas, 2nd Heavy Equipment Transportation Company, assigned to 164th Sustainment Battalion, is a convoy commander who, at the end of June, had 22 convoys under his belt.
"I'm responsible for the loads -- make sure the loads get loaded up properly; make sure the convoy makes it from camp-to-camp - basically, anything that has to do with that convoy," said Rojas.
The convoys can vary as much in distance as they do in size, with the longest round-trip taking 16 days, assuming there are no stops or delays, and the size varying by 30 percent or more. This requires some adaptability on the part of the troops.
"I've done everything," Rojas said. "Whatever they tell us we need to do, we do."
The convoys, which are carefully planned out, make for long days, but the troops do what they can with what free time they have."
"We set our routes before we leave Arifjan, and each camp we hit has tents where we stay at," Rojas said. "We sleep a little and then push back out."
Orchestrating the joint efforts of everyone assigned to the brigade began with multiple layers of planning, Walker said, with U.S. Forces-Iraq in Baghdad and the 1st Theater Sustainment Command -- 1st SB's headquarters in Kuwait.
In addition, the 1st SB brought some of the people they would be working with in Iraq down to Camp Arifjan and walked through, step-by-step, all of the processes and challenges to be dealt with over the coming months.
At the heart of fulfilling 1st SB's mission is the welfare of the troops.
"One of the things that we're big on is resiliency," Walker said. "We've had very few family-type issues that we've had to deal with out here, and I attribute that to the great family readiness group structures that are both back at Fort Riley and back at all of the other home stations."
"It's important that you have those strong foundations, because our Soldiers have been able to focus on the mission at hand, and we, as the chain of command, have had to spend little time dealing with issues back home."