It is perhaps ironic that what was once considered to be a dream by some would come to fruition as the result of a real-life nightmare.
While the irony may be open to debate, there is no confusion regarding the nightmare that unfolded on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010, at 4:53:10 p.m. local time, when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck 15 miles west-southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
The U.S. Geological Survey would eventually attempt to quantify the disaster, noting, “According to official estimates, 222,570 people killed, 300,000 injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,294 houses destroyed and 188,383 damaged in the Port-au-Prince area and in much of southern Haiti. This includes at least four people killed by a local tsunami in the Petit Paradis area near Leogane …”
But the U.S. military didn’t wait for the event to be dissected and quantified. That’s not how they work. In fact, they had been preparing for a military or civil humanitarian challenge of this magnitude since 2006, when United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) fielded the Joint Task Force-Port Opening (JTF-PO) to provide a joint expeditionary capability to rapidly establish and initially operate an aerial port of debarkation and distribution node, facilitating port throughput in support of combatant commander-executed contingencies.
The JTF-PO concept encompasses both Aerial Port of Debarkation (APOD) teams – approximately 158 U.S. Air Force and 57 U.S. Army personnel – and Sea Port of Debarkation (SPOD) teams – 67 U.S. Army and nine U.S. Navy personnel – in expeditionary deployment elements designed to address historical distribution gaps and shortfalls, including ad hoc command and control, minimal airfield and distribution assessment, limited ability for rapid port clearance, limited in-transit visibility, and minimal movement control over distribution operations.
Army JTF-PO members come from the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC), a subordinate command of Army Materiel Command and one of three USTRANSCOM “transportation component commands” (together with Air Force Air Mobility Command and Navy Military Sealift Command) that provide intermodal transportation across the spectrum of military operations.
The first news reports of the Haitian disaster brought a combination of sorrow and awareness to one SDDC element, the 832nd U.S. Army Transportation Battalion, headquartered at the Port of Jacksonville, Fla.
Tasked with conducting surface deployment, command and control, and distribution operations for the Department of Defense through terminals and facilities throughout Florida, Latin America, and the Caribbean in peacetime and war, members of the 832nd watched the reports with the awareness that their unit was one of two battalions in SDDC certified for JTF-PO SPOD operations, and that Haiti was in their assigned area of responsibility.
As part of the early activity process, the 832nd received significant support from its higher headquarters, SDDC’s 597th Transportation Brigade, as well as other SDDC elements.
The 597th Transportation Brigade, located at Fort Eustis, Va., has four subordinate battalions: the 841st Transportation Battalion (Charleston, S.C.); the 832nd Transportation Battalion (Jacksonville, Fla.); the 842nd Transportation Battalion (Beaumont, Texas); the 834th Transportation Battalion (Concord, Calif.); and the 833rd Transportation Battalion (Seattle, Wash.). In addition, the unit has command and control of the 688th, 689th, and 690th Rapid Port Opening Elements (RPOE).
“The great thing about Joint Task Force-Port Opening – with both the APOD and SPOD pieces – is that we executed the USTRANSCOM commander’s vision exactly like it was planned,” explained Col. Jeffrey B. Helmick, commander, 597th Transportation Brigade. “That was the most amazing thing for us as we teamed with our Air Force and Navy partners.”
“In terms of the earthquake on 12 January, I have seen the statistic that this was the largest natural disaster in the history of a nation,” he said. “I thought that statistic was absolutely incredible. But what happened was that we were able to get down there very quickly because of the Joint Task Force-Port Opening. Once we got down there we immediately started working to support relief operations at the airfield and then the seaport of Port-au-Prince. And having those troops on the ground quickly was saving lives.”
Prior to the real world deployment, the JTF-PO elements had conducted APOD exercises, called “Eagle Flag,” at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., and SPOD validation at Fort Eustis, Va.
“Those exercises were absolutely incredible in preparing us for this mission,” he added.
“I don’t think that a lot of people know that the leaders from the 688th RPOE were doing a leaders’ recon in Afghanistan at the time the earthquake happened,” Helmick said. “We had received a Warning Order to go to Afghanistan and the commander of that element, Maj. Victoria Snow, was in Afghanistan doing airfield assessments when the earthquake struck.
“The leadership of the 688th was in Afghanistan but the Soldiers from the unit were still here, and they were packing for cold weather,” he noted. “So, first we had to quickly get those Soldiers prepared for the weather in Haiti. Then I immediately sent my brigade S-3, Lt. Col. John Redinger, my 690th RPOE commander, Maj. Armando Kuppinger, Capt. William Reasoner, 1st Sgt. David Pollard, and Carlos Benudiz down to Haiti with the Air Force as part of a Joint Assessment Team.
“So it was an incredible team – SDDC, the 597th elements, and the Air Force Contingency Response Group (CRG) – that allowed us to shift gears like that. That’s the beauty of working for Gen. [Duncan] McNabb, the USTRANSCOM commander, and Maj. Gen. [James] Hodge, SDDC commander. We just had the authority to do what was necessary to react quickly,” he said.
Initial activities focused on Port-au-Prince APOD reopening, with the Joint Assessment Team (JAT) on the ground at “earthquake + 48 hours.” It required an additional 72 hours for 688th RPOE first elements to arrive – re-equipped with the correct equipment – making JTF-PO APOD surface elements operational five days after the earthquake. Remaining elements of the 688th RPOE closed over the next several hours through a total of eight airlifts.
“What I am most proud of is that we were able to get on the ground within 48 hours of the earthquake,” Helmick observed. “And that was powerful, because lives were at stake. Secondly, when the RPOE helped open that airfield and then began to push humanitarian assistance out to USAID [United States Agency for International Development] and nongovernmental organizations, that was critical in getting water and food out to the Haitians.
“So we put a team down there very quickly but equally quickly we realized that we would need two RPOEs – one for the airport [APOD] and one for the seaport [SPOD],” he added.
Fortunately, and predictably, the 832nd Transportation Battalion wasn’t just watching the early news reports of the earthquake damage. Even before the operational designation as Operation Unified Response, and prior to receipt of a formal Warning Order, the unit had initiated an internal Warning Order to configure the deployable team, including the SPOD JAT and the main body, comprised of Department of the Army civilians, military, and commercial stevedore contractors from the Port at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Within 48 hours of the earthquake, the unit received its formal Warning Order and JAT Execution Order.
As related by Lt. Col. Ralph J. Riddle, commander, 832nd Transportation Battalion, “Early intelligence of the situation allowed SDDC, the 597th Transportation Brigade, and the 832nd to quickly build a well-tailored package specifically designed to meet the challenges of opening the largely destroyed port of Port-au-Prince to military and commercial traffic.”
Riddle described that a tailored package consisted of 15 832nd personnel (including the commander, battalion operations officer, emergency essential Soldiers and DA civilians seasoned in operating throughout the U.S. Southern Command AOR, light vehicles, and all life support requirements with 14 days of self-sustaining supplies), and 10 commercial stevedores from Ambassador Services, Cape Canaveral, Fla. (with container handlers, heavy forklifts, trucks, trailers, generators, mechanical and electrical repair capability, light sets, and various supporting materiel and equipment to allow immediate cargo transfer operations). The team would be joined in Haiti by one contracting officer from SDDC Headquarters, who was assigned to initiate expeditionary contracting on site.
Following deployment medical preparations, the SPOD package was loaded aboard two USSOUTHCOM landing craft utility (LCU) vessels – assigned to 7th Sustainment Brigade – berthed in Cape Canaveral, with both craft departing on Jan. 16. Although the high seas greeting the LCUs forced one of the vessels to return to port to correct what Riddle described as “a dangerous instability situation involving a commercial flat bed trailer and a twenty ton equivalent unit (TEU) fuel pod loaded with diesel fuel,” it was quickly adjusted and the LCU was once again under way toward Haiti “at about 10 to 11 knots.”
“Approaching the coast of Haiti, the second LCU was following the lead vessel by less than a day,” he added. “Armed with the most current port survey information from the JAT on the ground, the JTF-PO SPOD team prepared to go ashore and begin receiving and staging cargo as soon as possible.”
The first LCU arrived in the destroyed port on Jan. 20, located a shore landing site, and quickly established critical infrastructure – including satellite communications using BGAN systems for daily reports to SDDC and USTRANSCOM – and critical liaison relationships with the USAID liaison officer, Haitian commercial and port authority partners, a U.S. Coast Guard team off the Coast Guard Cutter Oak (managing scheduling and berthing), elements of the 7th Sustainment Brigade Lighterage Control Center, a company of 82nd Airborne Soldiers providing port security, and other sister service elements.
The trailing LCU discharged in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 21, completing the 100 percent arrival of the JTF-PO SPOD.
“With full capability on ground and initial cooperation and partnerships in place, the JTF-PO was immediately ready to begin receiving and distributing approximately 100 TEUs daily,” Riddle noted. “On the first day of operations we pushed out the first 20 Food for Peace [USAID] containers to a warehouse for distribution. We also used our Haitian Port Authority contacts to provide public works construction equipment [excavator, bucket loader, and compactor] and gravel fill dirt to complete the Red 2 landing ramp and to construct the Red 3 landing ramp.”
Helmick highlights several “new concepts” that were employed in the Port-au-Prince SPOD opening process, ranging from “Army LCUs with commercial port opening package together with civilian stevedores” to “SDDC taking command and control of Army watercraft.”
Noting that initial intelligence reports had indicated that the Port-au-Prince port was not mission capable, he acknowledged an initial delay of 48 hours as focus shifted to assessment of the port at Cap Haitien. Yet in spite of that delay, the JTF-PO SPOD was operational within eight days after the earthquake.
In addition to the SPOD operational timeline, another incident that brings a special sense of pride to the 597th Transportation Brigade commander was the delivery of a “Superferry,” which Helmick credited with the ability to “hold 800 Soldiers or Marines – and we were able to activate that vessel quickly, which was one way to get forces and equipment down there.”
Helmick offers a number of initial impressions, beginning with the proven reality that, “The JTF-PO concept works!”
Additional impressions focus on issues like airlift priority (resulting in the 688th RPOE taking five days to close eight lifts); rapid response and timely decisions providing keys to success; control of early deploying critical assets – Army watercraft, terminal forces, high speed sealift, airlift – enabling speed and velocity; the critical importance of commercial partners; and positive “pitch & catch” control of cargo at critical nodes.
Looking toward the future, Helmick offered, “This is the wave of the future. And everybody has got to get on board with it because this is how we will support all of the other Combatant Commanders out there if and when required.”
“Right now, these JTF-PO capabilities are a national treasure,” he added.
This article was first published in U.S. Army Materiel Command: 2010-2011 Edition.