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NEWS | Oct. 28, 2014

Versatile vessels: 97th Trans. Co. tackles transport globally

By Senior Airman Austin Harvill 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Shortly after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, many humanitarian aid organizations ran into a huge problem - there was nowhere to dock any relief ships. Port Au Prince was severely damaged by the quake, so unless they beached a ship, there was no way to access those in need by water.

The U.S. Army stepped in and beached a few ships.

For the men and women of the 97th Transportation Company (Heavy Boat), this is standard procedure, as their ships' flat-bottomed hulls are specifically designed to hit a beach, drop a ramp and roll off food, personnel, munitions, medicine or anything else needed for a mission, said Capt. Brian Mullins, 97th Trans. Co. commander.

"We have seven Landing Craft Utilities, which are large flat bottom boats ideal for landing on beaches and quickly unloading supplies," said Mullins. "If there is a need for supplies in hard-to-reach places, chances are we can land an LCU to make the mission happen."

An LCU can carry a platoon-sized crew and all forms of supplies. Need a tank? Call an LCU. Need to send emergency supplies up a large river? An LCU will do it. How about sending troops into a hard-to-reach area of responsibility? Tell them to load on to an LCU and they will be there in no time.

"The versatility of this craft means it can excel in all forms of logistics or transportation support," said Mullins. "Because of this flexibility, our Soldiers are equally versatile and well-trained to handle any mission."

With a crew of just 13 Soldiers, everyone has a critical task. Above deck, a chief warrant officer acts as the vessel master, who is in charge of every aspect of the mission: the boat's heading, cargo, crew and structural integrity. A master sergeant stands beside the vessel master as a first mate. This Soldier acts as the vessel master if the CWO is incapacitated, and normally oversees the deck-side activities, whether it be training, loading or securing cargo.

Beneath the ship, a CWO commands the engine crew as the chief engineer. The chief engineer ensures all of the boat's maintenance is up-to-date and running smoothly. His assistant chief engineer, a senior NCO, mirrors the first mate as the right-hand to the chief engineer, directing the engine crew and acting as the chief engineer if needed.

On the deck and in the engine room, another eight Soldiers perform the duties assigned to them by the first mate or assistant chief engineer. The remaining three crew members are two cooks and one medic. The cooks, as one might guess, prepare the food and generally try to keep morale up during a voyage. The on-board medic watches over the crews health and has the ability to tend to a patient in an emergency while waiting for more intensive care.

"All of these members are absolutely vital to the success of a voyage," said Mullins. "While en route to a mission or exercise, the crew is constantly on their toes. Whether they are underway for four hours or four days, the crew will train, run through scenarios or do anything else they can do to make themselves better waterborne Soldiers."

With such extensive capabilities at their fingertips, 97th Trans. Co. personnel are often out on deployments or temporary duties to places like Japan, the Caribbean, Alaska and in the middle east.

"All of our Soldiers are unbelievably resilient when it comes to time away from home," said Mullins. "One crew can be out on a TDY for six months to Japan and then head straight to Afghanistan for a one-year deployment. Asking that of the families is tough, but they are always there once our crews come home, ready to greet them with open arms."

The main reason 97th Trans. Co. personnel find themselves away from home is simple - everyone, whether foreign or domestic, wants to be just like them, said Mullins.

"We work jointly with our sister services on an almost weekly basis, and we train Soldiers how to be heavy-boat crew members," said Mullins. "When we go on a TDY, you can bet we are helping the host nation train with their own LCU units or similar capability. At the end of the day, we are cheaper and more efficient than many other forms of transportation, commercial or otherwise."

Even though the heavy-boat Soldiers fill him with pride, Mullins, who is relieving his command in a few days, said he believes there is always more they can do.

"Our Soldiers are the best in the business, and they have taught me so much about what it means to be professional, resilient and dedicated to the mission," he said. "Once I am gone, I know they will only expand on those values and exceed the standard across the globe, showcasing their skills as the best waterborne Soldiers in the world."