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MRAP: Saving lives through teamwork

By Officer 1st Lt. Caleb Eames | | October 22, 2009

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Deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have been ongoing for more than six years, and service members assigned there have had some dramatic changes to their equipment during that time.

One of the most visible changes is the replacement of vehicles that transport service members, and in which they perform mounted patrols.  In the earlier years, the primary vehicle for patrols was the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle.  These days, a new breed of vehicle is on the dusty roads and trails of west and south Asia.  These new trucks are Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, and they provide far more protection than was offered by the HMMWV.

There have been many improvements in these new vehicles.  The bottom of the MRAP vehicles are v-shaped, in order to deflect the blast from Improvised Explosive Devices away from the occupants.  The outside of the vehicle is made of thick, dense armor, decreasing the chances of penetration in an attack.  And the entire MRAP vehicle is an integrated system, instead of adding armored pieces to an existing frame. 

Here at the Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Ga., a particular section of employees with Marine Corps Logistics Command has been deeply involved in ensuring the warfighters received MRAP vehicles, and got them quickly when they were most needed. 

“Between 2004 and 2006, we were losing a lot of kids to IEDs, and we needed the capability to protect them,” said Chris Berry, director, Program Support Division, MRAP Program, Program Support Center, LOGCOM and senior logistician, Joint MRAP Program Office.  “The joint program manager energized industry to come on line and meet that need.  We refer to that now as the MRAP program.”

Berry came on board as the fifth person hired with the MRAP program office in late December 2006, and since then the work that he and his team have been able to accomplish has saved many lives.

“A couple of key individuals in the early days were Mike Lawrence (change management specialist, Command Communications Office, LOGCOM) and Brenda Clark (field service representative, MRAP program),” Berry said. “Without the commitment and dedication of these two individuals, it would have been near impossible to surge and orchestrate the ever-growing sustainment requirements.”

When the MRAP program officially stood up and began procurement and fielding of vehicles in support of the urgent requirement for Iraq, the number of vehicles ordered was around 400. Now, the MRAP JPO has worked with industry to produce and deliver more than 15,000 vehicles to conflict areas, all to keep the warfighters safe.

Saving Lives

Berry has evidence of the importance of the work on MRAP vehicles, including a photo in his office of the side of an MRAP vehicle that was hit by an IED.

On the vehicle are written these words from a Chief Warrant Officer 4 in Iraq.  “This truck saved my life as well as five others on April 2, 2008, in Iraq.”  It is just one testament of many that Berry has heard that reminds him of the importance of his work.

“The Humvees are flat-bottomed vehicles, and they don’t take a blast underneath very well. We lost a lot of warfighters because of this,” Berry said.  “Now the MRAP vehicle shape, because of the way it deflects the blasts, saves lives.  The Marine Corps did up-armor the HMMWVs but they aren’t designed to carry that much weight, so the MRAP was a better solution.”

Ann Jowers works in the MRAP office, and has a son in the Army.  Her son wrote to her from Iraq, after having survived an attack while riding in an MRAP vehicle.  “He said thanks for what you and the team do, our lives were saved,” she said.  “We were hit on two separate occasions while riding in an MRAP and we are OK.”

Jowers has worked with the MRAP office since 2007.  “To me it is very important because my child is still walking and breathing,” she said.  “Military mothers have a way of getting together, and I get very emotional when I hear friends say that they are so glad their sons are also OK because of the work we are doing here.”

Bringing the MRAP program together

“The bottom line is that we have the ability to deliver a survivable and capable vehicle to the warfighters,” Berry said.  “And then following that is the sustainment piece to continue to support.”

In June of 2007, the Secretary of Defense labeled the MRAP program as the number one priority to support the warfighter.  As a result of that direction, the huge MRAP effort began to grow significantly, and LOGCOM quickly became a large part of the support effort to quickly meet the needs of the warfighter.

“To support the MRAP it’s not like going to a car dealership where you can get all the parts,” Berry said.  “Normally we have the time to establish that sort of thing all ahead of time.  But the MRAP program was established quickly and the logistics chain was established afterwards.  LOGCOM contributed hugely with expertise that helped to conceive an idea of how we could do the fielding of the vehicles and the logistics chain simultaneously and not go through the normal four or five year process.”

Berry and his team were able to support vehicle fielding very fast while keeping a 95 percent readiness over the last three years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“MRAP is the ultimate team sport,” Berry said.  “There is no single individual who can do this; we are all part of a team that has done a tremendous job.”

Berry also mentioned that much of the talent to accomplish this project came from LOGCOM employees who always jump at the chance to support the Marines on the ground.

The MRAP project involved five major manufacturers who produced different types of MRAP vehicles.  The three types used by the Marine Corps are the Cougar Category 1 (4X4, 38,000 pounds), the Cougar Category 2 (6x6, 52,000 pounds), and the Buffalo (6x6, 75,000 pounds).

“When you bring four or five vendors together, it is obvious that they are all different, so you have to be able to orchestrate all the efforts and identify the gaps and make things come together,” said Berry. A major contributor to the unity of effort has been the LOGCOM Program Support Center.

The PSC’s intent is to be able to bring all the force multipliers to bear, including the maintenance, supply and distribution efforts, all to support the warfighter as best as possible.  Because the Marines are expeditionary, the PSC also moves quickly to support those Marines by getting and keeping the vehicles in the fight when and where they are needed.

“I had the opportunity to meet four Marines who survived a major blast in their MRAP.  Their vehicle was blown over 20 feet in the air. You have to understand that this is a 30,000 pound-plus vehicle,” Berry said.  “All four of those kids walked away from the vehicle.  The worst injury was from one of them hitting his head on the dashboard.  That is the importance of this program.  There was a big public outcry to protect these guys, and we’ve done so.”

In order to ensure the program was able to meet the immediate needs of the warfighters, personal sacrifices were made.

“Everyone at LOGCOM and on our team has made personal sacrifices to ensure that the program is successful,” Berry commented.  “There are a lot of people here that take a lot of time away from their family to ensure that the Marines and other service members are taken care of.”

Berry said that the MRAP program may be one of the biggest industrial surges since World War II; it is worth well over $25 billion.

“In my humble opinion, we’ve pulled off the impossible here, all to protect our guys,” said Berry.  “We want those kids to come home.  It is not about us, it is about the warfighter. As Paul Mann, the MRAP joint program manager, would say, the warfighter is the beneficiary.”

Berry’s team is comprised of 28 people here in Albany, 30 in Iraq, five in Kuwait and four in Afghanistan.

Transition to Afghanistan

As the focus in military operations overseas shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan, the MRAP team faced new challenges.  There is a huge difference in the terrain, road systems and general infrastructure of the two countries.  The infrastructure of Afghanistan is virtually non-existent throughout much of the country.  In Iraq, there is generally some type of road system available.  But in Afghanistan there are only two major highways, a few roads and the rest is basically a system of trails. 

Berry regularly travels to Iraq and Afghanistan to establish MRAP distribution or servicing sites.  He was in Afghanistan just four weeks ago.

“The Afghanistan terrain is incredibly difficult for most vehicles,” Berry said.  “You come across irrigation canals that are three or four feet deep at any speed.  In a military vehicle, that can destroy a suspension.”

The MRAP Joint Program Office, through industry partnership, has developed an independent suspension system that greatly enhances how the vehicle handles in rough terrain.  The ISS is key to increased reliability of the vehicles, ultimately contributing to increased availability to the warfighter.

“The suspension is important because when a vehicle breaks, we can’t just let them sit out there, we have to retrieve them,” said Berry. “They are big and heavy, so it takes a team to get it.  That team then is exposed in enemy territory.”

“If we can keep the vehicles from breaking out in the terrain with the new ISS, then they are more available to the warfighter, it means that we fix them less, it means that less Marines are exposed in a recovery operation, it means the mission being accomplished in Afghanistan can be done faster with less delay,” said Berry.

The ISS arrives in many different parts in Albany, where LOGCOM’s Distribution Management Center consolidates all the components into containers.  They are then shipped to Kuwait and Afghanistan where they can be installed quickly.

The team has assembled and shipped more than 700 ISS kits to date, with 1,400- plus to follow in the coming months.

The ISS kits include an independent suspension, where each wheel can flex independently.  The tires also have a remote inflation/deflation system so the vehicle driver can either choose lower tire pressure for more traction in sand or dust, or choose higher tire pressure for hard surfaces.

Teamwork

“There were many challenges along the way, but through great teamwork, the tremendous support of LOGCOM and the program support centers, we met the challenge; we put vehicles in the warfighters’ hands and sustained them so they could come home safely,” Berry said.

Berry commented that the team could not have been successful unless leadership, specifically (then) Maj. Gen. Willie J. Williams, commanding general, LOGCOM; Mike Madden, executive deputy, LOGCOM and Sue Wright, director, Program Support Center, LOGCOM, had recognized the need and given the MRAP team the support needed to carry out the mission.

“LOGCOM’s unique ability to think outside the box, to find creative solutions to our unique challenges, really made a huge difference,” Berry said.  “LOGCOM brings so much talent to the equation in open-minded, good common sense solutions while stewarding the taxpayer dollars.”

Berry has received two Meritorious Civilian Service Medals for his work with the MRAP project, but says, “These awards are about the team, not me. They show the teams’ commitment and dedication to their work, all to support the guys on the ground. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us make a difference.”

Berry’s joint MRAP team continues find ways to save lives, and does not expect any pause in its support to the warfighter.  There are numerous challenges to overcome with sustaining the fielded vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan and flexing to meet the evolving missions.

The joint MRAP team is also engaged with the process of fielding and sustaining the new MRAP All-Terrain Vehicles.  These vehicles are already beginning to arrive in Afghanistan.  At the height of fielding, Berry’s team anticipates the vendor will be producing 1,000 vehicles per month to meet the current objective of more than 6,000 M-ATVs across the services.


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