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NEWS | July 17, 2012

Waterborne Soldiers - maybe the Army's best kept secret

By Sgt. Edwin J. Rodriguez 7th Sustainment Brigade Public Affairs

The average person in America knows how to add gasoline to their vehicles, wash them and vacuum out of their car. However, changing the oil or giving their vehicle a tune-up may seem like a task better suited for a mechanic.

If you want or feel the need to acquire advance skills and training in the mechanical field, you can go to a civilian education center... or you could consider enlisting in the military.

The Army has aviation, tank and small equipment mechanics, but there are other professionals who are even rarer. This kind does not work in squads, but in crews... in tight spaces. They have offices, but theirs' floats on water. They are known as the Army's watercraft engineers. Some people say the watercraft field is the Army's best kept secret.

Watercraft engineers are primarily responsible for supervising and performing maintenance on Army watercraft and auxiliary equipment on marine vessels. The engine crews keep their boats moving while ensuring minimum damage is done during missions. I met one crew member, also known as an engineman, who works on the U.S. Army Vessel Landing Craft Utility 2023, 'Hobkirk' at Fort Eustis, who explained to me his role in the belly of the iron-clad beast.

"You have to make sure you are doing your job properly to prevent injuries and complete the mission," said U.S. Army Sgt. Justin Kaplan, assigned to the 97th Transportation Company, 10th Transportation Battalion, 7th Sustainment Brigade. "One way to ensure safety is preventive maintenance. Another is to keep constant communication with the deck side to let them know if something has goes wrong."

Here are just of few of the duties Kaplan described as we walked along the second deck of the boat: perform daily systems checks, repair and maintain gasoline and diesel engines, troubleshoot and repair watercraft propulsion machinery, and repair and service hoisting machinery, engine-related electrical systems and various nautical equipment. With the price tag on these boats, you have to wonder how challenging it is for enginemen to ensure they stay on top of potentially damaging issues before they grow larger.

There are no shortages of demands put on the Army watercraft field, and on Kaplans's crew members. Beginning with the advanced training they receive after basic, to their daily routine in the active-duty Army, the challenges these Soldiers face are both difficult and rewarding.

Watercraft engineers like Kaplan train at Fort Eustis' Advance Individual Training school where Soldiers learn the basics of engine repair, maintenance of equipment, electrics, plumbing, air conditioning and welding. They also learn daily, weekly and monthly maintenance requirements like changing compartment oils and filters.

Soldiers with Kaplan's skill set only have two duty stations available, Fort Eustis, Va., or Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. I get the impression he would have been happy either way because he was ready for an adventure.

He did end up in paradise for a few years, stationed in Hawaii with the 43rd Sustainment Brigade. Eventually, he joined the 7th Sus. Bde., where he says the job demands are still rigorous but demonstrates there is more to an engineer's life than working in tight quarters while out to sea.

"Since I have been in the Army, I have been on many missions. Just last year with the 7th Sustainment Brigade, I was tasked to a U.S. Army South operation. I saw a different side of the Army there," said Kaplan, originally from Stewart, Fla. "I had some good experiences while traveling to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba."

As we walked down to the inner most portion of the deck, hopefully to find some food, he gave me some tidbits, more on the emotional side.

"I can't say I have had many bad experiences in my career. It is a different experience from anything else I have done. I love this job," said Kaplan.

He understands he could be called on for a mission anywhere across the globe. Serving your country is not an easy lifestyle, but his ability to maintain a positive attitude is what impresses most about Kaplan.

I noticed Kaplan has another similarity with other watercraft members: they love what they do. He loved working on the marina near where he grew up, and now loves working at 3rd Port with his mates, sharing in the ups and downs of the day.

Finally seeing the heart of the boat, where Kaplan's office resides, he was eager to show me some capabilities of the boat, and what needs 'fixin.' We found a light sensor with a fault while we toured the engine compartment, and he decided to demonstrate how to trouble shoot it.

We found out there was an electrical issue in the engine room exhaust-fan panel, and we darted off to fix the problem. You could easily see how he exemplifies a call to duty whether he is below decks turning wrenches, or teaching his fellow members the proper way to put on a fire suit.

Like other Soldiers of his generation whose future endeavors are unknown, he volunteered to join the Army. He was attending college before that point, when he began asking himself what more the world had.

Kaplan's Army career started six years ago after high school and a full year of college, when a good friend of his linked him up with a recruiter to talk about Kaplan's future. He didn't know the Army had boats until the visit.

"At the recruiting station while job searching I found watercraft engineer. I felt very fortunate to find it. School was an option at the time but the Army sounded like a good fit," said Kaplan.

You get the impression he has made solid choices in his life so far. He changed directions by joining the Army, and now it seems he will be looking to stay in as long as possible.

"I feel like I made a really good decision. I have enjoyed my time so far; so much so that I am ready to reenlist again," said Kaplan.

He made the final touch ups on the engine room panel and closed it up, but not for the last time, he guaranteed. One issue resolved - now on to the next.

In a few weeks, Kaplan will return to the Fort Eustis Transportation School to become a 30- level engineer, which will provide him the same level of training as staff sergeants in his field. He is hoping to move up in the ranks, and maybe become a marine warrant officer. Understand however, he is keeping his options open.

When you see the nuts and bolts, screws, oils and the interweaving of hundreds of pipes on the boat's 680 horsepower engine, you only see the tip of a watercraft engineer's knowledge. With further observation, you begin to sense that engineers are themselves, machines.

They act with precision, constantly on guard monitoring every detail of the boat's gauges. They are technical experts, self motivators' dependant on themselves and their fellow crew members. The crew's safety above - and the mission ahead - is dependent on them. Gremlins beware, mechanical engineers are aboard!