21st TSC moves 100,000 troops through MK Air Base

Story and photo by Sgt. Brandon Hubbard
21st Theater Sustainment Command Public Affairs
A Soldier from the 114th Transportation Company, Minnesota Army National Guard, waits to depart the permanent forward operating site Sept. 5 at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania, to redeploy home to the United States.
A Soldier from the 114th Transportation Company, Minnesota Army National Guard, waits to depart the permanent forward operating site Sept. 5 at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania, to redeploy home to the United States.

MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU, Romania — For Staff Sgt. Chad Emanuel, the answer to what he is looking forward to the most after his fourth deployment was easy to answer.

“My daughter, Gabrielle. She’s going to be 5 in October,” said Emanuel, a motor transport operator with the 114th Transportation Company, Minnesota Army National Guard, while emptying his backpack onto the customs table for inspection.

The staff sergeant, returning from Afghanistan with his unit, was the 100,000th service member to pass through Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base Sept. 5, marking a major milestone for the Transit Center that started moving military members both to and from Afghanistan in its first flight Feb. 2.

The air base rapidly filled an operational need for the United States military for moving Soldiers and Marines in support of Operation Enduring Freedom after the lease for the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, was not extended. In spite of the rapid transition, the Romanian base has become a new model for efficient combat airlift and transportation operations. The operation is an example of the continued commitment of the U.S. and its partner nations to supporting NATO, ISAF and other international contingency operations across the globe.

“This is my fourth deployment and by far my quickest, best, most efficient way out (of country) that I’ve actually had,” said Emanuel, who previously deployed to Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan in 2010.

MK Air Base is currently averaging less than 36 hours in on-ground transit time for getting troops into Afghanistan and an average of 40 hours for getting them back home. Comparatively, transients through Manas spent an average of 48 hours deploying and 72 hours redeploying.

“Reaching the 100,000th bi-directional passenger milestone is a testament to the dedication and efforts of our combined and joint team of Soldiers, Airmen, Department of the Army civilians, contractors and, importantly, our Romanian partners,” said Col. Kevin Mulvihill, 21st Regional Support Element officer in charge. “The ability of all these different organizations to come together and stand up the transit center in just over 90 days demonstrates how the U.S. Army Europe’s and the 21st Theater Sustainment Command’s forward presence enables us to be responsive to the Global Combatant Commands.”

Utilizing four Air Force C-17s operated under the 780th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, the joint operation has been able to quickly grow its capabilities during the past year. The robust forward-based logistics base provided by U.S. Army Europe’s 21st TSC and its enterprise partners at MK Air Base can support a through-put of about 2,000 troops per day (1,000 deploying into theater and 1,000 deploying out of theater) and about 3,000 tons of associated cargo and baggage.

“We’ve been pretty busy,” said Sgt. Korin Carlisle, movement supervisor for the Joint Movement Control Team at MK Air Base. Carlisle, who has been one of the longest serving Soldiers on the ground supporting the mission, recalls how in the early spring months the transit flights had only a trickle of transients, and over the summer, the mission has picked up into a robust transit operation.

About 32,000 transients were processed at the MK terminal from February to May. The other 68,000 personnel have been processed during the same amount of time from June through mid-September to support the drawdown in Afghanistan.

“As it progressed, we’ve been sometimes getting 1,800 people in a day,” Carlisle said. “So for us to come from 200 to 300 service members in a day to well over a 1,000 people really says a lot. At the end of the day, we get to do a really good thing here and send people back home to their friends and family, so that is really gratifying.”

Team of Teams

Moving units at a faster tempo means precise coordination between the joint units supporting the mission. Each day a room full of key Army, Air Force and Marines, as well as the Romanian officials who run the civilian-owned Mihail Kogalniceanu Airport, comb each flight itinerary and every detail down to meals to be eaten, housing and the contracted bus transportation to the terminal.

“The biggest thing we do is the coordination,” said Army Capt. Daniel Chandler, 165th Movement Control Team commander, based out of Fort Riley, Kansas. “We work directly with the U.S. Air Force and the Romanian air force, who have 5-ton trucks and buses that we use. We have to know what time the planes are coming in, how many people they are carrying and what direction they are headed.”

Deploying units have different requirements than redeploying units. For example, MK Air Base tests body armor plates for deploying Soldiers and Marines — called small arms protective inserts. More than 61,000 plates have been inspected, and 9,000 plates have been exchanged at the Plate Carrier Collection Point since February.

“It’s important because this is the last stop for them to get the protection they need,” said Pfc. Mara Thomas, who works at the PCCP with Sustainment Task Force 16.

Lean Mission, Important Job

Lt. Col. John Motszko, STF 16 commander, who oversees the ground transit operations, sees the mission as remarkable, considering only a force of about 350 permanent party personnel have been able to move more than 100,000 people.

A smaller force means cost savings too, thanks to the temperate climate in the Black Sea region and utilizing U.S. hard-stand buildings previously built in 2009.

“The cost is a fraction of what was spent in places like Qatar and Kuwait because it was an extreme environment,” Motszko said. “The fact of the matter is that it is simply more comfortable coming through here.”

Annual operating costs for MK Air Base are estimated at $18 million per year, compared to $80 million per year for the Transit Center at Manas. But, the significance of the mission isn’t lost on cost savings alone for the service members tasked with making the base both comfortable and safe.

“It is always fun to see people come through. I’ve actually deployed once to Afghanistan and seen some of my battle buddies come through (MK Air Base),” said Cpl. Francisco Meza, desk sergeant for the 202nd Military Police Company, deployed from Fort Bliss, Texas, to perform base security at MK. “Just to see those guys, it doesn’t only boost my own moral, it lets everybody know we are actually making a difference out here.”