Offloading ships in a sandstorm
MSCO Kuwait reservists work in one of Earth's harshest environments
By Gillian Brigham, SEALOGEUR Public Affairs
You are standing at the edge of a pier watching the outline of a ship slowly sharpen as it sails towards you through summer haze, which hangs like a curtain over the water. Your fatigues are caked in dust, and the sun is bearing down on you with an almost physical force. You stopped looking at thermometers earlier this morning when the temperature rose above 120 degrees. In any case, the sweat running in rivulets down your back is only partially from the heat. A mixture of excitement, anxiety and expectation of the unknown fuels the rest.
A 1,000-foot Navy ship loaded to the gills with Humvees, tanks, military hardware and heavy equipment bound for U.S. troops in Iraq is arriving any minute. You happen to be responsible for overseeing the complex operation of unloading this cargo and getting the ship back out to sea on time.
You also happen to have never actually done this before.
This is the scenario a group of Military Sealift Command reservists found themselves in last year when they arrived at the Port of Ash Shuaybah in Kuwait, as the new staff of Military Sealift Command Office Kuwait.
Plucked from six MSC reserve Expeditionary Port Units, these 10 reservists were mobilized for one year to run MSCO Kuwait, the office that handles almost 90 percent of all military cargo being delivered to the Middle East for use by U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. Although the pace has slowed since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, on average, the staff deals with the arrival and off-loading of two ships each week.
On the ground in Ash Shuaybah, the staff functions as facilitators. They organize the ships' schedules, working with the Army stevedores who are responsible for physically off-loading the cargo and the military units who are receiving the equipment. They coordinate the harbor tugs and pilots who help navigate ships in and out of the port, arrange force protection, negotiate for additional pier space when it is needed and maintain a 24-hour watch while ships are in port, overseeing loading operations.
"Day-to-day, we're making arrangements, aligning schedules, working with the Army and keeping all the players up-to-date" said Capt. Steven DeLong, former commander of the first group of reservists to run MSCO Kuwait and, in his civilian life, an MSC employee at the command's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "There is a lot involved with getting ships in here."
After a quiet initial two months on the job without any ships in port, Navy Lt. Michael Holmes vividly remembers the June day he spent standing on the dock watching MSC large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off ship USNS Pomeroy arrive. Pomeroy was the first ship that he and many of his fellow reservists ever had a hand in off-loading.
"It was kind of daunting," said Holmes, "watching her pull in. But at that point you can either freak out or chalk it up to a learning opportunity."
The story of how Lt. Holmes found himself in a war zone in one of the busiest ports in the Middle East begins in 2005. For years prior, MSC's prepositioning squadron staffs took turns going ashore for a year and running operations in Kuwait. However, in 2005 while the staff of the now-disbanded Afloat Prepositioning Squadron Four was serving their final year of duty in Ash Shuaybah, MSC looked for a new answer to this staffing issue.
The solution? Mobilizing reservists from MSC's 16 different Expeditionary Port Units, or EPUs, to take on the job.
"This is what EPUs were initially created to do, so they mobilized us to come out here and take over the mission," said DeLong.
In February 2006, after months of rumors, DeLong, Holmes and eight other reservists were formally given their orders to mobilize. A month later, they headed down to the U.S. Army's Fort Jackson in Jacksonville, Fla., for two weeks of warrior-skills training.
"The Navy set up this program with Army instructors so naval personnel working ashore in the Middle East could take a course in land navigation and convoy protection and gain additional weapons and the rudimentary 'this is how you enter and clear a building' skills," said DeLong.
Their stay at Fort Jackson gave the reservists another important opportunity - some time to get to know each other. Of the new staff members, five people were reporting from EPU 108 in Atlanta while the other half were coming from EPUs in Jacksonville, Syracuse, N.Y., Quincy, Mass., and Mareno Valley and Alameda, Calif.
Among their ranks: a postal worker, an engineer, a telephone company employee, a bookkeeper, a homebuilding supplies buyer and a former civilian mariner. Lucky for them, launching hand grenades and slogging together through the mud is a great way to build quick camaraderie. Faced with spending the next year living and working together in a desert halfway around the world, they would certainly need it.
The staff touched down in Kuwait on April 25, 2006, just as the summer heat was settling over the country's spare, desolate landscape where telephone poles and oceans of dust stretch to the horizon line and beyond.
MSCO Kuwait is located at the Port of Ash Shuaybah, a vast industrial complex of piers, factories and huge mountains of sand belonging to a busy cement plant on site. A couple of revamped 20-foot shipping containers and a Mobile Sealift Operations Center van huddled together behind a handful of concrete barriers on a pier is MSCO Kuwait's footprint at the port. It is an austere environment, to put it mildly.
For the reservists, it is also one of only two places they are allowed to go in all of Kuwait.
Security measures restrict the majority of U.S. military personnel to the base where they work and the base where they live. Kuwaiti Naval Base lies 20 miles south of Ash Shuaybah. The base is home to Camp Patriot, a 1,500-person contingent of U.S. military personnel working in or transiting through Kuwait. The MSC staff shares dorm-style living quarters on the first floor of one of the only actual buildings on base. Most everyone else lives in large white tents that also house the mess hall, the exchange, the gym and other support facilities. Despite difficult conditions and their lack of liberty, the staff is enthusiastic as they reflect on their year in the Gulf."Day-to-day, we're making arrangements, aligning schedules, working with the Army and keeping all the players up-to-date."
Capt. Steven DeLong,
former MSCO Kuwait commander
"The rewards far outweigh the cost," said Navy Chief Petty Officer Roberta Chinetti, the self-proclaimed mom of the group, infamous for teaching her unit to play cribbage in order to help wile away the often-tedious off-hours spent restricted to the base.
"I'm glad I got this opportunity," continued Chinetti. "This is something I've trained to do and here I actually got the chance to do it."
DeLong, familiar with Kuwait from his days sailing as master aboard MSC sealift ships during the first Gulf War, said the workload and environment was what he expected.
What impressed him about the experience was his staff.
"The fact that people from six different organizations came together so smoothly and so effectively is what I've been most pleased with. This is a great team," said the captain.
Among his unit, the appreciation is mutual. The staff attributes much of their success to their leadership - Delong and his executive officer Navy Cmdr. Jim Hajj.
"They are two of the best COs and XOs I've ever worked for," noted Holmes. "As a group, we felt empowered to do our jobs. When the first ships were here, the captain would stay all night, live here at the port. But, as we started to get the hang of it, he let us step up and handle things. He empowered us to use our authority so we weren't afraid of making decisions."
This opportunity to make decisions and be involved in operations that affect what is going on in Iraq and that support troops serving there is hailed by the staff as the most rewarding part of their tour.
"Knowing that you are a part of important things going on in the world today and that you are an active part in helping make them better," said Chinetti, "now, that is exciting."
During their notable year at the helm of MSCO Kuwait, DeLong and his crew coordinated more than 100 missions that deployed more than 8 million square feet of cargo and 5 million pounds of ammunition to U.S. and coalition forces in the region.
In February, they stepped back as a new set of reservists, members of EPU 104 from Syracuse, N.Y. led by Navy Capt. Pete Johansen, assumed responsibility of the operation during a change of command ceremony presided over by Navy Capt. Glen R. Sears II, commander, Sealift Logistics Command Central.
"I'm looking forward to continuing the great record of performance that Captain DeLong established during his tenure here," said MSCO Kuwait's new commander. "I've got a great crew, and they are more than able to meet any challenge that may come."
Since taking over in Kuwait, the new unit has offloaded 777, 678 square feet of cargo from 12 ships.