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Army’s ‘Best Kept Secret’ Floats

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January 26, 2012
By Sgt. David Kanavel

The 824th Transportation Company, a Reserve unit from Moorehead City, N.C., just arrived in Kuwait to start their yearlong deployment. The home away from home has a unique feature, it floats.

The unit's floating home for the next year will be on board the Landing Craft Utility 2002 -- United States Army Vessel Kennesaw Mountain, a 174 foot Landing Craft Utility, or LCU, 2000-series vessel. The crew totals only 17 Soldiers and their mission is to carry material throughout the Persian Gulf. The crewmembers consist of seven on the deckside, seven engineers, two cooks, and a medic.

Since the crew just arrived, they had to do an extensive check of the vessels' safety equipment and mechanical equipment and even complete one mission with the vessels' previous crew. In between missions the crew will polish their vessel operation skills and makes sure their operating licensing requirements are met. This will enable the crew to be a constant state of readiness -- ensuring they are prepared for any mission.

Early in the morning on Jan. 20, the crew loaded up the food order that just arrived and prepared to depart for a day of training and licensing exercises. Just after 9 a.m., Sgt. Robert L. Wallace, the vessels' boatswain, blew the horn to alert anyone within ear shot that they were pulling away from the pier at the Kuwait Naval Base.

A full-time North Carolina state trooper, Wallace joined the unit in July 2006. He maneuvered the controls on the vessel's bridge to pull the vessel off the pier, turn it around, and depart the harbor unassisted. Even though he was under the watchful eye of the skipper and first mate, he handled the vessel like a pro.

He, like many of the other Soldiers on the vessel, all have a common story. They had no idea that the Army had a fleet of watercraft until they went to the Military Entrance Processing Station, known as MEPS.

"We are the Army's best kept secret," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kenneth "Neil" Styron Jr., the vessel's chief engineer. He spent six years as an enlisted Soldier before becoming a Warrant Officer.

He said most people, even Soldiers, do not realize that the Army has watercraft. His big grin shows his appreciation for finding this unique opportunity to continue serve the people of the United States as a Reserve Soldier.

Sgt. 1st Class Ronald E. Buffkin, is the vessel's first mate. He served with the Navy in the mid-'70's and was out of the military for 18 years before he found out about the Army Reserve unit near his home that operated watercraft. He has been with the unit since 1996.

Buffkin said he is reluctant to be promoted to the next level, as master sergeants have to come off the LCU's and become part of the land-based crew.

"We have a saying," said Buffkin. "'If it ain't got water under it, we don't want anything to do with it.'"

The youngest and least experienced Soldier on board the vessel is 18-year-old Pfc. Tyler M. Morrow, a vessel engineer. "I volunteered for this deployment while I was still in AIT (advanced individual training)," said Morrow. "With all the training, I have only been home for maybe three weeks sent I shipped off to basic training."

He recited the all too familiar story about how he did not know what job he wanted to do in the Army. His recruiter sent him to MEPS where the position of watercraft engineer was offered. When he told his recruiter what MOS, or military occupational specialty, he took, the recruiter had to look up the job to see if that was an actual job.

These are just a few examples of how the Army watercraft section is not so much an unpopular career field, simply an unknown career field in the Army

"The Army has more boats than the Navy," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Tom Heald, Vessel Master of the Kennesaw Mountain. "Most people don't realize the size of our fleet."

Besides the common theme of having a job that is mostly unknown, the crew also loves what they do. Most of the crew has lived around the coastal Carolina area for years. Many have had family in the marine industry.

"A lot of people on here enjoy their jobs and love to talk about it," said Styron.

Buffkin added to that sentiment by saying, "Most people in this field, you can't run them off."

As Heald watched Sgt. 1st Class Daniel A. Close, 1st TSC Mobility Maritime noncommissioned officer, perform an anchor maneuver, part of Close's licensing process, Heald said, "It doesn't matter if we are licensing or delivering something, we are out here doing what we love."

Both Close and Wallace will work on their licensing packets on this trip. They both hope to advance their skills to take them to the next level of Army watercraft operation.

"The boat field is run by license type instead of rank," explained Spc. Devan C. Foley, one of the vessels deck hands.

Foley, who is also a Landing Craft Mechanized 8000-series vessel, or LCM8, operator, commonly referred to in the Army as a mike boat, assists with all deck operations including emergency drills, cargo loading and unloading and battle stations.

"The mike boat is run by all NCO's," Foley explained. Referring to the point of the size of the vessel dictates the size of the crew. The Army's largest watercraft are the Logistic Support Vessels, which have a crew of 32 versus the three-person crew of the Mike boat.

During a day of training and licensing, Foley was on deck with three others performing their tasks as proficiently as possible.

Styron said that about ninety percent of the crew has worked together prior to this deployment.

"Unlike most Reserve units, during AT, we do real life missions and they usually last about 28 days," said Stryron.

He recounted the missions that the unit has had, from Haiti, to moving cargo to and from the Caribbean, to using one of the vessels in the recovery operation to raise the USS Monitor.

After the crew took the Kenneshaw Mountain beyond the Kuwait Naval Base's high-water barrier, they opened up the engine to allow the engineers to check some work that was recently completed on the vessel. Then, over the loudspeaker, a voice bellowed, "Man overboard, man overboard, blue coveralls, port side."

The young, but efficient crew raced into action. Out of nowhere, the deck was full of crewmembers all pointing in the same direction.

"Everyone points in the direction of the person in the water so we don't lose sight of them," explained Foley as he was got his recovery gear ready to pluck the lifeless figure out of the water. The medic stood by to administer any life saving skills that the unsuspecting swimmer would need.

As the vessel turned around the deck listed as the vessel raced back to where the floating figure bobed up and down in the waves. As the vessel approached, the deck crew moved into their recovery positions to pull the figure out of the water.

The first pass was a success. As the lifeless figure was pulled onto the grey steel deck, there was a quick laugh as everyone joked with the medic about what to next to "Oscar," the mannequin.

Even though that day's event was only a drill, all of the 17 crew members knew that it could be them overboard for real some day, so they took the drill very seriously. On the bridge, Wallace and Close took turns at maneuvering the vessel as the man overboard drill was repeated over and over until the Skipper and First Mate were satisfied.

Next, Wallace and Close started the duty performance test. Buffkin elaborated that the licensing process is very extensive. There are 22 tasks that must be evaluated.

Heald placed an "X" on the Electronic Charting System and told the expected licensees to drop the anchor on the "X." First up was Close, as he maneuvered into position, the added stress of having a battery of questions being asked by Buffkin and Heald while Close is trying to communicate with the deck crew appeared to be weighing on him.

He called out for wind direction and he checked the water depth to determine how to approach the target without damaging the boat. But Close performed as if he had been born to do this. As the deck crew spotted the tension of the anchor chain and reports back up to Close, he smiled and said his nearly famous line among the crew, "All right."

Finding a good way for the entire crew to break for lunch was formulated into Heald's master plan for the day's operation. While at anchor, he can afford to have only one Soldier on the bridge to perform anchor watch, their version of fire watch. The vessel has two Army cooks on board. Wallace explained that they can place an order for just about anything.

"We don't have access to a PX (post exchange) or MWR (morale, welfare and recreation facilities), so we stay well stocked," said Wallace.

"We do what we can to give the cooks a break and have the crew eat in the chow hall while in port if possible," Heald added.

The cooks provide three hot meals a day. That day's lunch menu included fried chicken, mixed vegetables, rice with gravy, and a cinnamon streusel cake for dessert.

"After eating food this good, it's hard to go back to eating at the chow hall every day," Close remarked.

Close, being with 1st TSC, is based out of Camp Arifjan, Kuwait for his deployment.

Close and Wallace passed their anchor test. Next they simulated a beach landing.

Heald explained that the LCU is like a barge. Its depth in the water, which is called its draft, is very shallow. Therefore the vessel is capable of landing on a beach to on load or offload cargo.

For the day's training, however, they pulled up to a large concrete ramp. Wallace went first, while Close stood on the front of the vessel assisting the deck crew. Close used a radio to call up distance reports.

As the large vessel neared the shore, the front ramp was lowered slightly to help the bridge crew see where they are going. As inexperienced as Morrow is, he seemed very well versed in how the ballast tank system work, which is how they raise the nose to aid in a beach landing.

As the vessel approached, the nose rode high in the water. Just as the vessel stopped, the huge ramp was lowered and fell within a foot of the waters' edge. The crew raised the ramp and threw the huge vessel into reverse. They flipped it around with ease. Then it was Close's turn. He was just as successful.

The last duty performance test for the trip was bumper drills. The crew repeatedly pulled along a dock to show proficiency in using all of the tools in the vessel's maneuvering arsenal. The arsenal includes two propellers, known as screws in maritime language, two rudders, and a bow thruster, which can steer the nose 360 degrees.

Both Close and Wallace passed the test and it was time to head back for the day.

The 17 Soldier crew of the Kenneshaw Mountain take great pride in their job. They know that their mission will be completed with outstanding professionalism and pride. From the youngest to the oldest, each one has found their way into a little known Army profession.

They are happy with, and proud of, their jobs. They do not mind letting the world in on their unique stories of how they discovered the Army's best kept secret.

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