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The Army's Best Kept Secret Floats

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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 is on board the Landing Craft Utility 2002 -- United States Army Vessel Kennesaw Mountain, a 174 foot Landing Craft Utility 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 polishes their vessel operation skills and making sure their operating licensing requirements are met. This enables 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 loads up the food order that just arrived and prepare to depart for a day of training and licensing exercises. Just after 9 am, Sgt. Robert L. Wallace from Beaufort, N.C. and 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 handles 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 Center.

"We are the Army's best kept secret," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kenneth "Neil" Styron, Jr., the vessel's chief engineer from Davis, N.C. He spent six years as enlisted 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, the vessel's First Mate is from Wilmington, N.C. He served with the Navy in the mid-'70's and was out for 18 years before he knew 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 as Master Sgt. 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 soldier on board the vessel with the least experience is 18-year-old Pfc. Tyler M. Morrow, a vessel engineer from Jacksonville, N.C. "I volunteered for this deployment while I was still in AIT," 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 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 unpopular but an unknown specialty of the Army "The Army has more boats than the Navy," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Tom Heald, Vessel Master of the Kennesaw Mountain and from Moorehead City, N.C. "Most people don't realize the size of our fleet," continued Heald. 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 NCO from Coolville, Ohio, 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 were working on their licensing packets on this trip. They were both advancing their skills to take them to the next level of Army watercraft operation. "The boat field is run by license type instead of rank," said Spc. Devan C. Foley, one of the vessels deck hands and from Gloucester, N.C.

Foley, who is also a Landing Craft Mechanized 8000-series vessel (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 largest watercrafts are the Logistic Support Vessels and have a crew of 32 versus a crew of three to operate the Mike boat.

On this day of training and licensing, Foley will be on deck with three others to perform 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 takes the Kenneshaw Mountain beyond the Kuwait Naval Base's high-water barrier, they open up the engine to allow the engineers to check some work that was recently completed on the vessel. Then, over the loudspeaker, a voice bellows, "Man overboard, man overboard, blue coveralls, port side." The young, but efficient crew races into action. Out of nowhere, the deck is 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," said Foley as he was getting his recovery gear ready to pluck the lifeless figure out of the water. The medic was standing-by to administer any life saving skills that the unsuspecting swimmer might need. As the vessel turns around the deck lists as the vessel races back to where the floating figure bobs up and down in the waves. As the vessel approaches, the deck crew moves into their recovery positions to pull the figure out of the water. Today, the first pass was a success. As the lifeless figure is pulled onto the grey steel deck, there is a quick laugh as everyone jokes with the medic about what to next to…"Oscar" the mannequin. Yes, they just saved Oscar's life. Even though this was a drill, anyone of the 17 crew members knows that it could be them someday and take the drill very seriously. On the bridge, Wallace and Close take turns at maneuvering the vessel as the man overboard drill is repeated over and over until the Skipper and First Mate are satisfied.

Next Wallace and Close will start the duty performance test. Buffkin elaborated that the licensing process is very extensive. There are 22 tasks that must be evaluated. Heald places an "X" on the Electronic Charting System and tells the expected licensees to drop the anchor on the "X." First up is Close, as he is maneuvering 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 appears to be weighing on him He calls out for wind direction and he checks the water depth to determine how to approach the target without damaging the boat. But Close performs as if he has been born to do this. As the deck crew spots the tension of the anchor chain and reports back up to Close, he smiles and says is nearly famous, "All right."

Finding a good way for the entire crew to break for lunch has been 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 explains that they can place an order for just about anything.

"We don't have access to a PX or MWR, so we stay well stocked," said Wallace. Heald added, "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." The cooks provide three hot meals a day. Today's lunch menu: fried chicken, mixed vegetables, rice with gravy, and a cinnamon streusel cake for dessert. Close remarked, "after eating food this good, it's hard to go back to eating at the chow hall every day." Close, being with 1st TSC, deployment home is Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.

Close and Wallace pass their anchor test. Next they will simulate a beach landing. Heald explains that the LCU is like a barge, its depth in the water or draft, is very shallow and therefore the vessel is capable of landing on a beach to on load or offload cargo. Today, however, they will pull up to a large concrete ramp. Wallace goes first, Close stands on the front of the vessel assisting the deck crew. Close uses a radio to call up distance reports. As the large vessel nears the shore, the front ramp is lowered slightly to help the bridge see where they are going. As inexperienced as Morrow is, he is very well versed in how the ballast tank system work. How they can raise the nose to aid in a beach landing. So as the vessel approaches, the nose rides high and just as the vessel stops, the huge ramp is lowered and falls within a foot of the waters' edge. The crew raises the ramp, throws the huge vessels into reverse with ease and turns around. Now its Closes turn, he is just as successful.

The last duty performance test for this trip will be bumper drills. Repeatedly pulling along a dock to show proficiency in using all of the tools in the vessel's maneuvering arsenal. The arsenal includes two propellers or screws, two rudders, and a bow thruster which can steer the nose 360 degrees. Both Close and Wallace pass this test - 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. But they do not mind repeating each of their unique stories on how they discovered the Army's best kept secret.

Article by Sgt. David Kanavel, 1st Sustainment Command (Theater) Public Affairs