FORT LEE, Va. (Sept. 17, 2010) - When the Transportation School conducts its first classes here next month, it will not only mark the beginning of a new era of training at Fort Lee but also represents one of the final steps of an ambitious plan to converge the Army's sustainment support community under a single "center of excellence."
The Transportation Corps, part of the Army's logistics triad, was formerly located at Fort Eustis, its home for more than 60 years. The corps' headquarters and its school ceremoniously uncased its colors two weeks ago, setting the stage for its presence here under the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure mandate that created the Sustainment Center of Excellence. Its full move to Fort Lee is scheduled for completion in September 2011.
Located on C Avenue across from the Regimental Club, the Transportation School will operate out of a recently renovated building formerly occupied by the Quartermaster Noncommissioned Officers Academy. A few non-school-related classes began this week at the facility. The first transportation military occupational specialty course starts in mid-October when a batch of 30-40 students will arrive for training.
Col. Mark A. Westbrook, the school's assistant commandant, said the school has come a long way to ready itself for its inaugural academic cycle at Fort Lee.
"I'd say right now we're at about a 90 percent operational rate," he said. "We still have some technical problems (with computers) that we're trying to work through."
The schoolhouse used a two-month gap in classes to make all the necessary preparations to kick-start operations at Fort Lee. Sgt. Maj. Joe R. Clarida Jr., the school's sergeant major, said despite all the challenges encountered during the relocation, the staff and faculty are ready to get on with the business of training students.
"It's going to be great for the instructors to actually start to do their job," he said. "It will be a great thing for the school, and the first class that comes through here will be a special group because they're validation for our presence here."
The first students to attend classes at the new Transportation School will be those enrolled in the transportation management coordinator course - MOS 88N. It is the only one of the five transportation MOS-producing courses that will be taught at Fort Lee (the others are taught elsewhere). Military members and civilians attending various functional area courses will make up the remainder of the student body, which is expected to surge in a few months.
The school will receive about 3,000 students annually at its full operating capacity, said George Atkinson, deputy assistant commandant.
"You're going to see as many as 100-plus students here on kind of a normal, recurring basis," he said. "It's not huge, but that's essentially the population."
By comparison, fellow new tenant and the much larger Ordnance School will average 6,500 students on any given day once it reaches full capacity within the next year.
Personnel issues aside, Transportation School students will train at facilities that are markedly different from those at Fort Eustis, said Westbrook, referencing the renovation work done on the schoolhouse where he has an office.
"First of all, if I didn't know better, I'd think this was a brand new building," he said. "I came up here six or seven months ago when they were still bulldozing in the lobby with piles of dirt. I'm really pleased with it. It's more of a state-of-the-art building, in my opinion, than building 705 (at Fort Eustis) was. Building 705 was very, very old."
And it's not just the classrooms. The hands-on training facilities are more modern than the former location. Fort Lee's recently constructed Multi-Mode Transportation Training Facility features railroad cars, a C-17 fuselage and a full C-130 aircraft where students can get the feel of actually loading cargo, said Clarida.
"At Fort Eustis, we had the mock-up aircraft that was used for training, but Fort Lee provides more of a realistic training experience where students can position cargo and use the ramp on the aircraft. It's definitely an upgrade and will bring the training to a new level."
Despite its training facilities, the Transportation School has the smallest footprint of the three logistics institutions - quartermaster and ordnance schools included - that now occupy Fort Lee. It definitely had less anticipation than the Ordnance School and its move to Fort Lee, but Westbrook said it has been no less difficult, especially for its civilians, many of whom have deep emotional roots to the transportation community at Fort Eustis.
"It hasn't been that difficult for the military because it's like a PCS move," he said, "but I did feel the frustration of the civilian workforce because the relocation involved their homes and other issues."
Those issues include selling homes in a weak economy and spousal employment.
"It wasn't just about moving civilians here but their having to find their family members work as well," said Westbrook. "A lot of them still live in the area, so they're commuting every day. That's the biggest hardship."
Furthermore, Atkinson said the schoolhouse lost through attrition a significant portion of its management staff and, thereby, its accumulated institutional knowledge. About 20 of them decided to make the move, but about 20 did not.
"It's had a big impact, and we haven't felt all of it yet," he said. "We have a very senior workforce and the majority of us are (Army) retirees. That's also what created the emotional tie to Fort Eustis because we chose to make our homes in Williamsburg or wherever. We've lost a lot of key leaders."
The school's instructor numbers have also been impacted but not on the level of its management staff, said Atkinson.
"Most decided to come and the ones who retired, did so a year or two sooner than they (initially) wanted to, but they wanted to retire," he said.
The staff and faculty is dealing with other obstacles as well. Since four other MOSs will continue to be taught at Fort Eustis and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., the schoolhouse no longer has a training brigade like the Ordnance and Quartermaster Schools. Students will instead be assigned to a company under the QM School's 23rd QM Brigade.
There is also the issue of control. The Transportation School was the biggest tenant at Fort Eustis and "owned" the post so to speak. At Fort Lee, it will be the smallest at a location where people still use the phrase "Home of the Quartermasters." Westbrook said the Transportation Corps will simply have to work hard at helping people understand its mission, culture and identity.
"The sergeant major and I have to get out and meet all the senior leaders," said Westbrook. "They've known for two years we were coming. Now they've just got to put the faces with names."
In his efforts to establish the school's presence on the installation, Westbrook said he has been impressed with the support he's received, especially the assistance he's gotten from the Soldier Support Center, Fort Lee's new personnel processing facility.
"It's the best I've seen in 27 years," he said.
But the school's ability to perform its mission will depend on various factors - installation support, personnel and infrastructure to name a few. There are also the intangibles. Westbrook said they will all play a part in the school's success and its ability to produce competent transporters. He said the first students earning graduation certificates is the first step in that process.
"If there's anybody who has any doubts that we could operate here, that'll prove that we can," he said.