Getting it all back home: 823rd ESFS overcomes logistical challenges

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Donnie Gallagher
  • 823rd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron
(Editor's note: This is a part of the weekly submissions from the 823rd Security Forces Squadron, which is currently providing security at the Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.)

By now, most of you know that the 823rd Security Forces Squadron has an expeditionary element operating in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Although our numbers have dropped significantly from our original 184 down to the now "mighty 28," our mission continues.

As operations here on the ground transformed into various phases of Operation Unified Response, some of our roles transformed as well.

While we still provide airfield security by manning the ramp when U.S. aircraft are on the ground and manning several different entry control points, we have recently picked up the task of providing security at the helicopter landing zone at the U.S. Embassy.

We are seeing the United States and international presences slowly shrink as other nations fold their tents, pack them up and go home. The only question that remains for us is, "When will it be our turn?"

Although a very logical question, and one that comes to every deployer's mind, it can only be accomplished when everything goes home. Everything in this case is the 184 short tons of vehicles and equipment that the 823rd ESFS hit the ground with in January.

This amount may not seem like much, but it took five C-17 Globemasters full of passengers, trucks, all-terrain vehicles and individually-separated units to take us here. We had military working dogs and their equipment, plastic barriers, batteries, tents, a mobile mechanics shop and a medical cell complete with doctors.

We had it all and enough ammunitions, food and water to be completely self-sufficient and illuminate the Caribbean sky for days, if the need arose.

It's great to be able to feed and shelter your own Airmen and even provide for others. It gives us pride and we are able to proclaim, "We are self-sufficient, expeditionary warriors!"

That is, until the squadron commander shows up and says, "The mission is complete, so now with all the equipment, we can prep it, pack it and ship it home!"

This is where my true adventure begins. I figured all we had to do was get a detail together, wash the trucks, clean up all these ISUs, complete a few packing lists, get it all inspected and weighed, in addition to knocking out a few hazardous declarations. This shouldn't be a problem at all.

It almost sounded easy, until they told us, "One big problem- your equipment won't be going home by air. Instead, all of your vehicles and equipment will be going home via sealift."

Typically, we use large aircraft to move people, things and munitions through the air.

With this, mobility command personnel basically started speaking in a foreign language, using phrases like "water commodity codes" and "export traffic release request." Even the U.S. Navy HAZDECs were completely different.

The learning curve was huge, the waiting was worse and the amount of paperwork accomplished was astounding. All of our equipment was inventoried, cleaned, customs inspected and finally staged at the airport, where it sat for more than a month. Finally, after the majority of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division's equipment had departed, we received our port call date.

April 2 was the magic day and the 24th Air Expeditionary Group had to assemble just about every licensed driver available to move all of our equipment to the port. The U.S. Army's 377th Sustainment Brigade contracted local trucks and flatbeds to move our ISUs and 20-foot containers. We then lined it up and convoyed it to port.

The convoy that was only about six miles to the port seemed to take an eternity. In locations where Americans typically have two lanes of traffic, the Haitians have six. We took the scenic route, right through the heart of Cite Soliel and through the Venezuelan market, an adventure for both the sights and smells.

When we arrived at the port, our vehicles and ISUs were cleaned a second time and customs checked once more. Our equipment sat for a few days before we returned to the port to load the barge. Our loading operations lasted about 15 hours and in that time, 35 servicemembers from the U.S. Navy, Air Force and United States washed everything (again) and loaded more than 320 pieces of rolling stock, 20 containers and 25 ISUs.

I was absolutely amazed when one of the civilian naval contractors originally showed me the load plan.

When 3 a.m. rolled around, the "American Trader" vessel out of Seattle,Wash., was packed and loaded without an inch to spare. The four football fields were once again an empty expanse of mud and gravel.

The mission continues, but it is now on the backs of the 28 remaining Jesters, four high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles, two ATVs and two ISU-90s. As for what's left, it will be flying home when we fly home, hopefully sooner rather than later. One thing is for certain however, when we leave we will have left Haiti better than when we found her.

The "Mighty 28" Jesters 'til the end!