By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
April 24, 2009 - Before U.S. military troops touch ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, they must first pass through one of a handful of military portals, or gateways, that coordinate their movement in and out of the theater. It is a behind-the-scenes effort that sometimes can be best described as "organized chaos," as hundreds of thousands of troops and civilians move in and out of the two countries annually.
At the Theater Gateway in Kuwait, the largest of the military's portals, fewer than a thousand troops and civilians managed moving more than 700,000 passengers in and out of the theater last fiscal year, and it is on track to beat that amount in 2009.
"Our part is in big support of the theater's mission to man the force. We are the ones that make that happen," said Army Maj. Anthony Oliveras, deputy director of the Theater Gateway in Kuwait.
Oliveras is part of the 9th Theater Gateway, based out of Fort Campbell, Ky. He manages the 220 soldiers who make up the gateway's core cell.
Most of his troops are from the 90th Human Resources Company, based out of Fort Stewart, Ga., but the rest are a mix of active-duty and reserve-component soldiers from across the United States and Europe.
But getting troops in and out of theater is a collaboration of members of all of the services, as well as civilians, who work at a handful of camps, an air strip and the Life Support Area, all based just outside of Kuwait City.
Oliveras and his troops manage the tracking, billeting and feeding of the troops in transit. They also handle the travel arrangements for those returning home on leave.
His group works alongside the Air Force at the nearby air strip, the Navy, which handles the customs processing at the gateway, and the civilian contractors who manage the flight manifests.
At a dusty, temporary camp set in the desert outside of Kuwait City, the gateway processes all of the troops and civilians through four large tents. They are flanked by dozens of canvas tents used for temporary billeting. On the far side of the camp is a 24-hour dining facility, a base exchange, coffee shop, fast food restaurants and morale, welfare and recreation facilities.
The LSA is a 24-hour operation, with troops and civilians coming and going at all hours. All of the services, except for a few of the fast food restaurants and the exchange, operate around the clock.
"We're very much like an airport, in that we process folks to get on flights and they wait around in our area waiting for their flights and we provide services," Oliveras said. In fact, Oliveras said, the gateway's throughput is equivalent to that of the Toronto International Airport.
The camp offers some limited personnel services such as making identification cards and tags, and it offers chaplain support. It also handles travel arrangements for troops who are traveling on rest and recuperation orders.
Civilian contractors serve as the movement control team, working all of the flight manifesting and processing. They do not fall under the gateway's military leadership, but instead work alongside as a partner.
The LSA doesn't process large, brigade-size elements, but mostly individuals or small groups. The larger units are processed at the nearby Camps Beurhing and Virginia. There they are processed and receive any needed training and are flown from the nearby air base.
The gateway also provides liaisons for every service and civilians coming and going from the theater. The liaisons work in one large tent and help to account for and guide their personnel through the deployment and redeployment process. A command cell on the LSA runs the dining facility, the exchange, recreation facilities, security and the maintenance contracts.
The LSA is not an enduring camp, and therefore is built around temporary infrastructure.
It takes up to 180,000 gallons of water a day, all trucked in, to support the LSA, and the many generators around the camp provide its power. There is no septic tank, so all sewage must be removed to a treatment facility nearby.
During a deployment, a soldier may pass through the gateway four times, twice coming and going, and twice again for leave.
It is a coordinated concert of planes and buses, billets and briefings to keep things moving. Everyone must know their piece and be ready to play. Constant communication keeps everyone from missing a beat.
"We have lots of experts in the procedures that know the process and the steps and the people involved very well, so we can step in at times and make adjustments ... in order to respond to the situation and still take care of the mission," Oliveras said.
The most likely bumps in the journey involve flights coming from and leaving for the United States, Oliveras said, so, they get the most attention. Requirements and flights are programmed five days out, and monitored daily. If a unit shows up late because a flight was delayed, it takes all sections on the gateway to work on getting them to their destination.
Remarkably, most travelers only spend one day at the gateway, Oliveras said.
"We try to be proactive. We communicate with the LNOs and our partners in the gateway ... daily and we project out all of our missions for what's arriving and departing," Oliveras said. "We try to identify problems before they arise. But that's not always possible."
Oliveras said keeping the flow moving could be described as organized chaos at times, but, despite the many moving parts, there are relatively few problems.
"For the most part, things do run pretty smoothly," Oliveras said. "We're not constantly plagued with bad things happening."
Still, most moving through the gateway are ready to be anywhere else but Kuwait. And frustrations can sometimes peak when flights are delayed and briefings are missed.
Oliveras said his troops keep their customer-service focus by recognizing the efforts of those deployed. Oliveras said he asks his troops to match the sacrifice of those deploying to combat.
"Even though we're all soldiers, they're the true warfighters, and we're here to support them and take care of them," Oliveras said. "They are putting their lives on the line and sacrificing their comfort and safety in service to the country."