By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 18, 2008 - It's a typical day in this charming Southern city: cobblestone downtown streets swarm with tourists, magnolias are about to pop, and hundreds of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles are being readied for transport to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The glossy travel brochures might not note it, but Charleston has become the epicenter of a massive Defense Department program to get more heavily protective vehicles to deployed troops.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates got a firsthand look today at operations under way to speed up delivery of MRAPs to the combat theaters through a program he moved to the fast track in summer 2007.
The vehicles, with V-shaped hulls that help deflect underbelly blasts, have proven to be lifesavers against improvised explosive devices and the even-more-deadly explosively formed penetrators.
After visiting Naval Weapons Station Charleston, where radios, sensors and jammers are installed in the vehicles, Gates watched as an MRAP bound for the war zone rolled onto a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at Charleston Air Force Base.
The Defense Department initially flew all MRAPs to the theater as soon as they were ready, and the 437th Aerial Port Squadron here continues airlifting an average of 12 vehicles a day, said Air Force Capt. Jim Lovell, the squadron's flight commander. Since getting the MRAP mission in April 2007, the 437th has delivered 1,571 to Iraq and Afghanistan.
They're flown aboard Air Force C-17 Globemaster III and C-5 Galaxy aircraft that can carry about three MRAPs at a time or on contracted transport planes capable of flying up to six, Lovell said.
Several miles away, along the banks of the Cooper River, another MRAP delivery mission is under way and quickly makes gains on the airlift effort. The Army's 841st Transportation Battalion, based at Charleston Naval Weapons Station, is overseeing a sealift operation capable of moving 200 to 300 MRAPs at a clip.
Shipped aboard a Military Sealift Command ship -- specifically, large medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off vessels, known as LMSRs -- or commercial cargo ships, the MRAPs take 21 to 23 days transit time to reach Kuwait. They're offloaded there and moved north into Iraq.
The sealift effort began in the fall, when the 841st shipped 48 MRAPs in early November, 180 later that month, and almost 550 in December. "That's certainly a success story," said Army Maj. Isabel Geiger, the 841st Transportation Command's operations officer.
Army Lt. Col. Randolph Haufe, the unit commander, said the pace of shipments will only go up as the production line produces more vehicles.
Army Master Sgt. Kevin Young, the unit's operations noncommissioned officer, described the loading operation that moves hundreds of vehicles onto the ship and secures them for transit within the span of six to eight hours as "a pretty dance, with everyone working in tune."
Because MRAPs come from several manufacturers and in a variety of configurations, there is no one-size-fits-all way to load them, explained Craig Messervy, a marine cargo specialist and Army veteran. Messervy spends hours formulating a load plan that gets as many MRAPs as possible onto a ship while ensuring a safe passage and no damage to the vehicles.
As he watches each vehicle roll up the loading ramp and into position, Young said he likes to "give it a little pat" of encouragement and gratitude for the service it will provide his fellow soldiers.
Haufe said it's no coincidence that Charleston has become the hub for MRAP shipments. The largest MRAP producer, Force Protection Inc., is just a few miles down the road in Ladson, S.C. The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command here already had been integrating electronic systems into up-armored Humvees when the MRAP mission kicked into high gear this past summer.
But even more significantly, Haufe said, Charleston is "DoD's premier intermodal hub" with almost unparalleled transportation assets. It boasts a network of rail lines, an Air Force Base with a C-17 wing, and a secure port facility that's able to spill its operations to the North Charleston Terminal directly next door when the need arises.
"This is one of the few secure DoD facilities that has the capability to move general cargo in and out in large quantities," Haufe said.
And because the Navy owns the terminal, the government saves berthing fees that can run as high as a quarter million dollars for an LMSR ship.
"You combine everything -- the added security, the fact that we're a military town, the intermodal hub, and a great, experienced workforce -- and this is just a terrific place for the MRAP," Haufe said. "It's no accident that we're shipping the MRAP out of Charleston."
Everyone involved in the MRAP delivery mission, whether by air or sea, agrees they're happy to carry out a mission that supports deployed troops so directly.
For Lovell, the mission is deeply personal. He lost a family member, a Navy corpsman, to an enemy IED in Iraq's Anbar province. Lovell said he's convinced that if his relative had been in an MRAP rather than an up-armored Humvee, he might have survived.
"We all have a vested interest in getting these out on time, and we're doing everything we can to protect these men and women in uniform," Lovell said. "What we're doing is not for show. It's making a difference."
Army Sgt. 1st Class Frederick Jones, operations noncommissioned officer in charge for the 841st Transportation Battalion, said he witnessed the MRAP's capabilities firsthand while deployed to Tikrit, Iraq. The first "Buffalo" model MRAPs had just arrived in the theater, and troops initially didn't know what to make of the vehicles that have been referred to as "Humvees on steroids."
But after seeing both standard up-armored Humvees and MRAPs come back from missions after being hit by IEDs, the troops were sold. "I saw the difference MRAPs make, and it's a big difference," Jones said.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Frank Douglass, load team chief for the 437th Aerial Port Squadron, had just returned from a deployment to Baghdad in April when he was assigned to the MRAP airlift mission. "I came home and jumped right into it," he said. "Soldiers could die if these don't get there. We know that, so we do everything we can to load them correctly and make sure nothing goes wrong in flight so they can get downrange to the people who need them."
Air Force Capt. Ruth Meloeny, a C-17 pilot with Charleston Air Force Base's 16th Airlift Squadron, said flying MRAPs is little different from flying toilet paper, bubble wrap or any other commodity -- at least until the cargo ramp drops at the destination. "You really see a difference," she said. "When guys see those MRAPs roll off, they're very happy. You've brought them something that's giving them increased safety and helping making them more effective in doing their job. That's pretty rewarding."
Many of the civilian stevedores and longshoreman who represent the heart of the sealift operation are veterans themselves and see the mission as a way to continue serving. Among them is retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Kim Green, former NCOIC of the 841st Transportation Battalion and now a civilian marine cargo specialist supporting his old unit.
"Our fellow soldiers over there are at it 24-7, so this is the least we can do to show we're behind them," Green said. "We're still contributing. We're still serving."
Haufe attributes much of the success of the sealift mission to a workforce that's willing to put in the hours required -- including most weekends -- to keep up with the requirement.
"The vessels just don't stop, but they understand the importance of the MRAP and how much it contributes to the safety of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines," he said. "We're all proud to be moving the MRAP. That thing saves lives, and we're happy to be playing a part."