By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
May 2, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates toured Red River Army Depot today, observing operations that have won accolades for speed and efficiency in refurbishing worn-out wheeled and tracked vehicles for use by warfighers who depend on them. The depot, one of the military's largest facilities, has set records in turning around Humvees, Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Trucks and Small Emplacement Excavator vehicles, and rebuilding transmissions and track and road wheels on Bradley fighting vehicles.
Gates walked through the tactical and combat vehicle production lines, watched Bradley transmission and 25-millimeter gun production and toured the rubber products division building.
"I come away impressed by the skill and the commitment of the men and women who work here, and also by the fact that by refurbishing and resetting this equipment, ultimately they save the taxpayers many millions of dollars every year," Gates told reporters after touring the facility.
"Red River has always come through during times of war," he said. "During the 1940s it ramped up for tank repair, and today it provides life-saving equipment for our fighting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan."
During his tour, Gates learned how applying Lean Six Sigma principles – a methodical approach used throughout industry to increasing efficiency and reducing waste – have speeded up restoring vehicles to like-new condition so they can be returned to the combat theater.
"Humvee production here has skyrocketed from about two Humvees a week in 2004 to an eye-popping 26 Humvees a day in 2006, and 32 a day now," Gates told reporters.
Assembly-line processes have cut to a fraction the time it takes to rebuild battle-damaged wheeled and tracked vehicles, explained Patton Tidwell, the depot's director for contracting. Vehicles move to each new station every 26 minutes, like clockwork.
"We broke complicated procedures into smaller, simpler tasks," Tidwell said. "It's enabling us to take care of warfighters in the field better every day."
The effort has won the depot numerous awards, including its second Singo Prize Public Sector Award for Excellence in Manufacturing and Achievement, in October. Business Week calls the award the "Nobel Prize for manufacturing."
As he toured the facility, Gates nodded hellos to and shook hands with workers he called the driving force behind Red River's success. Some, Gates noted, are fourth-generation employees following in the footsteps of those who cranked into high gear during World War Two.
"Their dedication to our troops can be summed up by a placard that the workers place inside each vehicle," he told reporters. "It reads: 'We build it as if our lives depend on it. Theirs do.'"
The motto is ever-present at the depot, stamped onto metal silhouettes of a weapon-toting combat soldiers that stand like sentinels throughout the facility. "We use this to get our workforce focused on why we're here," Tidwell said. "It's a reminder of who we're working for."
For many, the mission here is highly personal. About 35 percent of the workers are veterans. Tim Perkins, chief of the Humvee maintenance division, retired from the Army with 22 years of service. Kenneth Lynn, a mechanic in the Bradley transmission facility, has a stepson with the Arkansas National Guard serving in Baghdad.
Many workers have volunteered for six-month rotations with Army Materiel Command's forward repair facility in Kuwait.
David May, who manages the depot's heavy and medium tactical division, said the importance of the work really hit home when his son, Army Pvt. Christopher May, told him he'd been issued a HMMT that had been refurbished at Red River.
The sentiment was echoed throughout the facility. Barbara Callaway paused from inspecting a rebuilt Bradley transmission system to reflect on why what she does matters. "We have to keep these Bradleys going. If this Bradley transmission goes out, these men and women can't get out of harm's way," she said. "We want to build the best possible transmission to keep them pace."
Gates thanked the depot workers and the Texarkana community that has supported the facility for decades for their "tireless support" of the men and women in uniform.
"People may question whether or not the nation is on a war fighting," Gates told reporters. "The people here at Red River Army Depot clearly are on a war footing."