By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 18, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited here to see progress made in speeding up delivery of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles to warfighters and to thank the people working behind the scenes to save military lives. The secretary toured the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, a massive warehouse where teams crawled in, on and around nearly 60 of the massive MRAP vehicles on the factory floor, installing radios, sensors, jammers and other equipment.
The crews, who work around the clock in two shifts equipping more than 50 MRAPs a day, crowded around a podium and took places on MRAPs, flanking it as Gates compared them to their World War II-era predecessors.
He cited President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who called on the production lines to "raise their sights" and prove wrong anyone who said that what they were striving to achieve couldn't be done.
"Those in the MRAP program have shown that it can be done. So keep raising your sights. Keep these vehicles rolling off the line," Gates said. "Your efforts are saving lives."
Gates called the MRAP "a proven lifesaver on the battlefield" that helps protect against cheap, deadly and difficult-to-detect improvised explosive devices, which have been the No. 1 troop killer in Iraq. He noted that in 12 of the Army's deployed MRAPs that have come under attack, every soldier aboard walked away.
The secretary shared a deployed sergeant major's description of the MRAP as "just lovely," drawing laughter when he admitted that the soldier's actual words were "considerably more colorful."
Gates went on to share more of the sergeant major's assessment: "Troops love them. Commanders sleep better knowing the troops have them."
"There can be no better description of the difference you are making here. You are saving lives," the secretary told the workers as he extended his thanks, along with those of "countless moms and dads, husbands and wives and sons and daughters of U.S. troops deployed abroad."
Gates conceded that there is no failsafe measure to prevent all loss of life and limb on the battlefield. "That is the brutal reality of war," he said. "But vehicles like MRAP, combined with the right tactics, techniques and procedures, provide the best protection available against these attacks."
Since the secretary made MRAPs the Defense Department's top acquisition priority, the program has advanced at near-unprecedented speed. The department met its yearend goal of getting 1,500 MRAPs to the theater, and by Jan. 16 had delivered 2,225 MRAPs.
"The last time American industry moved from concept to full-rate military production in less than a year was World War II," Gates said.
He cited a monumental partnership between government and industry and the willingness of workers like those at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command to work around the clock six days a week to meet requirements.
"I don't think it will surprise you to hear me say you must keep pressing on," Gates told the workers. "IEDs will be with us for some time to come in Iraq, Afghanistan, and battlefields of the future. The need for these vehicles will not soon go away."
Gates walked through a static display of nine MRAP variants for all four services and rode past a huge staging area where more than 300 vehicles were about to be loaded for shipment to the theater.
From there, Gates went to Charleston Air Force Base to watch an MRAP destined for Army Special Operations Command in Iraq being loaded aboard a C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft.
Air Force Maj. Chad Morris, 437th Aerial Port Squadron commander, described operations that have airlifted 1,609 MRAPs to the theater to date. "Our target was 360 a month, but we're pushing that out," he said.
"Our folks are here, committed to the mission and doing the job," Morris said he told Gates. "We haven't missed a beat yet."
On the factory floor and tarmac, workers and airmen alike said they were happy to show the secretary how they are contributing to the MRAP mission.
"It's not everyday we get a man of his integrity to come out and see us," said Andrew Harkleroad, who has worked at the center for 15 months. As an Air Force Reserve staff sergeant, Harkleroad said he has a personal interest in knowing that the country is pulling out all stops to protect its deployed servicemembers.
"It's an honor for him to come down here and talk to us," agreed Andrew Fuentes, another center employee. Fuentes said he gets a lot of gratification knowing he's supporting the troops. "I feel I'm participating. I'm saving lives," he said. "That's the objective."
At the air force base, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Eugene Porter called Gates' visit "awesome."
"It shows our men and women in the military we're doing what we can to support our comrades overseas," said Porter, a shift supervisor for the air terminal operations center. "We're getting our stuff to the fight, and we're doing it all as quickly as we possibly can."