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Who Made That Masked Man’s Mask Anyway?

By 633d Air Base Wing Public Affairs Staff 633d Air Base Wing Public Affairs

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The Department of Defense, in response to the elevating COVID-19 threat, released guidance Apr. 5, which mandated face coverings for all military personnel, DoD civilian employees, family members, DoD contractors and all other individuals on DoD property, installations and facilities.

The personnel with the Joint Base Langley-Eustis-based 558th Trans. Company (Watercraft Maintenance), 10th Trans. Battalion (Terminal), 7th Trans. Brigade (Expeditionary), began in-house, mass production of partially-3D printed, partially-handsewn masks less than a week later.

The process started when U.S. Army Lt. Col. Matthew Western, 7th Trans. Brigade (Expeditionary) deputy commander, called Capt. Dallas Meachum, 558th Trans. Company commander, regarding the possibility of using the company’s 3D printers for mask production, which were typically used by the allied trade shop for production of small scale models and replicas for testing and troubleshooting for machine parts.

“I called our allied trades shop chief, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Ken Youngs, and asked him to see if our two machines could perform a task of this caliber,” said Meachum. “Youngs and Spc. Cameron Bowling, the one Soldier who had extensive knowledge of 3D printers, came into work to begin research and development.”

JBLE was in Health Protection Condition - Charlie by this point, which limited the number of Soldiers reporting to work each day to those who were ‘mission essential only.’ Youngs and Bowling fell into this category due to the importance of the work they were doing.

“In the initial stages of the research, Youngs and Bowling researched a large pool of free design codes and we eventually settled on three design templates,” said Meachum. “After several days of troubleshooting and on-the-job training with the machines, the team printed and produced all three prototypes for review. We examined each prototype on durability, comfort, effectiveness, and production output.”

The materials the 558th purchased included elastic cords (to set the masks around the ears), fabric, thread, needles, and a sewing machine. The mask frames are polyethylene terephthalate glycol-modified filament, more commonly known as PETG, a less brittle variant of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is the most commonly used plastic in the world.

A challenge did come up in the form of sewing. Most Soldiers in the company did not know how to use a sewing machine, one of the 558th’s Soldiers, Spc. Kayle Ackerman, taught each user how to perform the task, added Meachum.

Lt. Col. Lydia Thornton, 10th Trans. Battalion (Terminal) battalion commander, conducted her review,Apr. 9, and decided on the design and intent of the 558th’s production, which proved to be rigorous.

“When the project received the go-ahead we immediately opened with 24/7 operations from 9-29 April,” said Meachum. “To fulfill this requirement, we broke our company down into teams of three; every Soldier, at least in some small way, served to complete this mission.”

This is no small feat considering the company claims 95 Soldiers. The final count of masks produced: 845, which saw use throughout the 10th Trans. Battalion (Terminal), as well as the brigade.

“The moxie required to tackle a project with no previous experience, and the wherewithal to accomplish the mission,” said Meachum. “It is an honor to serve our battalion, brigade, and community: many Soldiers used their talents, skills, and leadership abilities to do the work. I am proud of their hard work and determination; I am proud of their selfless service.”

The 558th Trans. Company (Watercraft Maintenance) is assigned to the 10th Trans. Battalion (Terminal), 7th Trans. Brigade (Expeditionary). The 558th is the only watercraft maintenance company in the U.S. Army. The mission of this company is unique, and its novelty continues to prove its value through missions and special projects such as the production of masks.
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