Army Reserve Soldiers own the beach at Big Lots East 2017

By 1st Sgt. Angele Ringo | 215th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment | May 19, 2017

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — A notional United States ally has asked for assistance in deterring an aggressive neighbor. U.S. intervention has derailed hostile actions for now, but the enemy is expected to return, making quick resupply of geographically dispersed maneuver units essential to denying the enemy the chance to regroup. It’s an exercise scenario tailor-made for watercraft operations because the best resupply options involve bare beach.

“Operationally, this is mainly meant for bare beach—an unimproved port,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Russell Christie, commander of the 338th Transportation Detachment (Harbormaster) based at Fort Belvoir, Va., referring to a system his unit uses to manage the flow of vessels and cargo. “We’re normally responsible for the vessels coming into port [and] leaving port. We arrange berthing, and we supply them when they’re going to other vessels or other ports.”

To make that happen, the unit uses a system called the Harbormaster Command and Control Center (HCCC). The 338th Harbormaster set up two of the systems as part of Big Logistics Over the Shore East 2017 (Big LOTS East), a U.S. Army Reserve exercise that provides hands-on training for boat units, terminal battalions, and deployment support command units to sharpen critical tasks that support bare beach and unimproved port operations. More than 450 Soldiers and sailors participated in the exercise that took place between Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Camp Pendleton Military State Reservation and Fort Eustis.

The Army began fielding the HCCC to Active and Reserve harbormaster units in 2012. The system, which can be set up in as little as four hours, provides real-time tracking of watercraft assets and cargo through a network of sophisticated sensors, mission command and communication tools that enable commanders to see where assets are and prioritize where things should go.

Sgt. Sasha Durnal, a watercraft operator with the 338th Harbormaster, helped set up the HCCC in an area near Little Creek Cove called the mudflats.

“The different things this [HCCC] system can do with giving you a great common operating picture, also radar capability—not to mention all the radio systems we have; it just really makes us self-sufficient,” she said.

During the exercise, the 338th Harbormaster monitored watercraft units moving nearly a hundred pieces of equipment in and out of marshalling yards and on and off watercraft that moved between Little Creek and Fort Story. The joint element included the Navy Landing Craft, Air Cushion, more commonly known as an LCAC or hovercraft, which moved larger pieces to Fort Eustis.

“The Navy was eager in joining in on this,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Harzewski, commander of the 483rd Transportation Battalion (Terminal), located in Valejo, Ca. “It’s kind of a mutual thing—we were really excited that they were able to participate. It’s very interesting to see how the Navy operates vs. the Army, but when it comes to getting cargo on the shore we have the same concepts and end state.”

Now in it’s third year, Big LOTS East has evolved and so has the training, said Harzewski, who highlighted the increased collaboration between the 1179th Transportation Brigade and its subordinate units in giving commanders a better view of how watercraft assets can be employed during a collective training event.

“We get the doctrinal version of that, but to see it all come together and have input on how this comes together, it’s a rare opportunity and a very good opportunity in this case.”

It’s an opportunity that the 338th Harbormaster would like to see more Soldiers get. The highly specialized field needs more troops, said its commander, and Big LOTS East not only showcases Army Reserve watercraft capability, but also provides a critical training vehicle for younger Soldiers to gain experience.

“We lose a lot of people in our unit, especially after deployment a lot of them transfer out for promotion purposes, and some retire. This is fairly sophisticated equipment and some of our Soldiers are now junior, so this is a good exercise to go ahead and train them on this equipment, “ said Christie.

For those more seasoned watercraft operators like Sgt. Durnal, there is no other career field she would have chosen.

“It really is a brotherhood, a sisterhood and besides we have some really amazing equipment. I think that’s what really keeps me here,” said Durnal. “Whether you’re doing this or sailing on a vessel, maybe a lot of people say this about their job, but I definitely think [this is] the coolest job in the Army and some of the best people.”