Transporting Guard soldiers, equipment is no easy task

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Preparing to go in Rochester
Soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry B Company from Rochester prepare their bags during a weekend container operation at the Rochester Armory. The soldiers are part of the 1st Brigade, 34th Infantry division preparing to head overseas this summer with the Minnesota National Guard.
MPR Photo/ Elizabeth Baier

Transporting thousands of soldiers, along with everything they'll need to carry out a mission to a war zone overseas, is no easy job. Minnesota National Guard soldiers charged with that task have already been working for more than half a year on logistics for the upcoming deployment by the First Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division to Kuwait.

The 2,400 Red Bulls soldiers will be stationed in Kuwait this year as part of the final drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq, slated for the end of this year. Soldiers from this same brigade several years ago served the longest combat tour of any military unit in the Iraq conflict. The Red Bulls will provide security and run convoys into Iraq, bringing troops and equipment out of that country.

So how does the National Guard get all that equipment to the Middle East for a large deployment?

Complete MPR report: Red Bulls return to war

Maj. Bruce Hoffman, 38, who is now the battalion executive officer for the New Ulm-based 1-125, was in charge of shipping everything for the last Red Bulls deployment to Iraq. He says it was a demanding and tedious job.

That deployment, which was slightly larger than the one leaving this month, used 100 tractor trailer-sized shipping containers, in addition to the gear carried by each individual soldier.

"For our battalion we had over 100 containers, 40 foot steel containers, that we filled and I was also responsible for the rolling stock - that is the vehicles that we need over in country, special trailers with special equipment on them and things like that," said Hoffman.

Maersk Line ship
The Red Bulls will transport equipment via a cargo like this Maersk Line vessel.
Photo Courtesy of the Minnesota National Guard

Hoffman has been in the Guard for 21 years, and has worked in logistics for about seven. His civilian experience as a buyer came in handy for his role in military logistics. Guard logisticians must handle their own contract negotiations, solicit bids and cut their own purchase orders. And when their unit is overseas, the logistics officer often contracts with local merchants.

"The last time I was in Iraq, it was interesting to buy things off the local economy to spur the economy and to create relationships, so I would speak to local Iraqis and it worked out really nice," Hoffman said. "That was a great part of my job. It was really fun."

Everything an individual soldier can carry usually travels along with the soldier on troop transport planes. Soldiers travel with their assault packs and weapons, and are also allowed to bring one personal bag. Each soldier is then weighed along with their packs and all of their gear before they get on the plane.

For larger, sensitive or particularly important equipment, the Guard uses special air transport -- mostly for equipment units will need immediately when they hit the ground in the war zone. Anything a unit can do without for a week or two travels via container ship.

Units from the First Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division will mostly ship supplies individually by truck to the Port of Galveston, Texas where everything will be combined and reloaded onto container ships.

Hoffman said the container ships generally take about a month to travel from the U.S. to the Middle East. Every single item packed into the containers is weighed and tracked by GPS.

"We put a GPS system on each container so we can follow it with our computers here to find out where exactly it is on the ocean," said Hoffman.

Shipping container
The Minnesota National Guard will use special trucks and container ships to transport much of the equipment to Kuwait and Iraq for the upcoming year-long deployment.
Photo Courtesy of the Minnesota National Guard

Hazardous materials specialists go through all the containers to make sure everything is stored properly in the containers. The contents of each container is documented in case they reach the wrong location.

Hoffman said the logistics of a combat mission are critical. It's very difficult to get anything left behind once a unit is in theatre. So logistics officers work from a checklist designed to meet all of the needs of each unit's specific mission. He remembers an incident from the last Red Bulls Iraq deployment.

"When we were leaving the last time, a rocket came in. We already had all of our containers packed and ready to go and I was waiting for them to be picked up. A rocket came in and blew up and hit one of our containers so it kind of looked like swiss cheese," said Hoffman. "So I had to unpack the whole container, document everything in there that was destroyed and then repack it again into a different container and discard the old one."

To make combat logistics somewhat easier, military units generally share some equipment. A unit leaving the theatre of operations will hand off equipment to the unit that's replacing them, and some equipment will likely remain in the region after the Iraq drawdown for use by the U.S. military on other missions.

Loading gear
Staff Sergeant Hector Colon, left, and Private First Class William Kichler carry gear and supplies to Colon's car at the National Guard armory in East St. Paul, Minn. Saturday, April 9, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Still, it's a big job.

Hoffman estimates it will take months for the U.S. military to transport all troops and equipment out of Iraq. He said the Red Bulls will work around the clock to transport everything into Kuwait to be packed on ships for the return. Each item will be marked with a special symbol for each unit before it's loaded at port in the Persian Gulf.

And to make sure each container arrives where it's headed as the U.S. pulls out of Iraq, one soldier will ride along on each ship for the trip back across the ocean.

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