News: Building a transit center from scratch
Story by Sgt. John Carkeet IV
MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU, Romania – The Soldiers from Sustainment Task Force 16, 16th Sustainment Brigade, 21st Theater Sustainment Command, slowly catch their breath, put away their shovels and line up along a sidewalk that minutes earlier had been blanketed by ice and snow. They stand at parade rest when a convoy of blue buses turns toward their direction. Ice shatters under rubber tires as the vehicles roll to a stop near the shivering soldiers. Seconds later hundreds of multicam clad troops hailing from the 101st Airborne Division, 2nd Brigade, pour out of the buses and walk briskly into a newly constructed (and heated) passenger terminal.
This is the first large group of service members to set foot in Romania with the sole purpose of transitioning to Afghanistan for their deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
It won’t be the last.
By this summer the last American service member must vacate Transit Center at Manas when the Department of Defense hands over the 12-year old base to the Kyrgyzstan government. Mihail Kogalniceanu (MK), a U.S. military installation situated inside a Romanian airbase snuggled along the Black Sea coastline, must pick up where Manas leaves off.
To help ensure MK meets this deadline, American service members stationed in Europe or deployed to Southwest Asia have converged here to lend their technical and logistical expertise. Army Sgt. Maj. Thomas Schultz, a 143d Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) Soldier serving as the Army Central liaison officer noncommissioned officer in charge at Manas, joined this elite group to advise his MK counterparts from 21st TSC on how to mold a streamline operation that will soon process thousands of soldiers and Marines as they begin or conclude their deployment to Afghanistan.
“We’ve come here to advise the personnel at MK on how to stand up the operation and solve any bottlenecks or issues,” said Schultz, a native of Abingdon, Md. “We will do our best to help troubleshoot and streamline the process.”
Schultz and other experts are working closely with soldiers from the 21st TSC, the unit with the 21st TSC, the unit with overall command and control of the transient process. He hopes his experience overseeing the Army elements at Manas will help build a transit center that will one day rival Manas’ textbook efficiency.
“Manas has been running for 12 years, so it’s a well oiled machine,” said Schultz. “The people at MK will likely go through the same growing pains as any operation standing up from scratch. It will be a ‘learn as you go’ situation.”
Though the mission and infrastructure at Manas and MK share similarities, certain elements make each theater gateway a unique entity.
“In Manas the Air Force is in charge,” said Schultz. “At MK the Army’s in charge. The Air Force piece begins and ends at the airfield, so there’s no Air Force personnel involved in the pax (passenger) flow.
Schultz also identified exactly who the 21st TSC and its subordinate units will process, equip, feed and house as they wait for aircraft heading east or west.
“Manas also processes American service members from all branches as well as coalition troops. Only two services will come through MK: the Army and the Marine [Corps]. In that regard the pax flow will not be as heavy, so the mission won’t be as complicated.”
In addition to supplying advisors the 387th Air Expeditionary Squadron, an Air Force unit that falls under the 143d ESC and the 1st Theater Sustainment Command’s mission command, sent three airmen from Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, to instruct 30 soldiers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment (2CR) on how to manage the customs stage within the transient process.
Air Force Master Sgt. Jose F. Diaz leads the team with the support of a pair of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.
“We found out that we would go to MK a couple days before we left Kuwait,” said Diaz, a customs agent with the 387th AES and a native of Monterey, Calif. “I was ecstatic at the opportunity to do something new as well as stand up a brand new operation.”
The two other customs and border clearance agents from the 387th AES shared Diaz’s sentiment.
“I was excited because it was something new, and the people we are training seemed excited to learn,” said Air Force Senior Airman Robert J. Money, a native of Owings, Md. “They were actually looking forward to learn something different than their MOS (military occupation specialty).”
“It’s an enlightening experience,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Charles T. May who hails from Brownsville, Calif. “You don’t see some of the stuff that’s in the Air Force and not in the Army and vice versa.”
The passenger terminal, baggage barn and customs facilities were erected in three weeks thanks to the coordination skills of Robert Walters, chief customs agent for the Balkans area of operations, and the construction power of the 902nd Engineer Battalion, 15th Engineer Battalion, 18th Engineer Brigade, 21st TSC, based out of Grafenwoehr, Germany.
“I was expecting to come here and start from the ground up,” said Diaz. “To my surprise Mr. Walters had already done a lot of the leg work. The facilities were already under construction, and a lot of coordination had been done. This allowed my team to jump straight into training.”
Despite the ongoing construction and blizzard-like conditions, Diaz’s team commenced training shortly after their arrival in country.
“We gave the soldiers hands-on training in everything from 100 percent bag inspections to operating the X-ray machines and body scanners,” said Diaz. “Initially we started as taking the leadership roles during the hands-on training simulations. We then started stepping back and observing the process as the soldiers felt more comfortable in those roles … It took a little more than a week to get to the point where the NCOs [of the 2 CR] run the show.”
The team has dedicated their time and energy toward teaching not only soldiers how to search bags and scan people for contraband but also submitting work orders for desks, tables, body scanners, X-ray machines and other equipment necessary to process hundreds of troops in a single day.
“By doing this we learned a lot more about our positions, said May. “We can go back [to Kuwait] and teach our guys something they didn’t know or something they missed.”
Dozens of distinguished visitors dropped by the customs facilities as Diaz and his team put the 2CR soldiers through a simulation that consisted of briefing, scanning and frisking their comrades playing as passengers.
“We gave them a rundown of how the troops will react to them searching their bags and scanning their bodies,” said Money. “We started hiding stuff in their bags so they could see that they need to search through clothing and not just dump out the bag.”
Schultz was one of the senior noncommissioned officers who observed the exercise.
“I was impressed,” said Schultz. “I believe the customs piece has more space and people to search bags than its counterpart [at Manas]. Once they get up and rolling, their operation will probably be a little more efficient than Manas.”
Schultz plans to stay in MK in an advisory capacity until the end of February. Diaz and his team hope to stay long enough to watch the 2CR soldiers perform their customs duties with actual passengers when troops bound for the United States touch down in Romania later this month.
“The team is ready to rock and roll,” said Diaz. “We just need the real thing to happen.”