ELWOOD, Ill. –
Little did this former U.S. Army Reserve special operations intelligence analyst and imagery analyst know that he would oversee the land he parachuted onto several times.
Stephen Benjamin, who was honorably discharged from the Active Guard Reserve as a staff sergeant in 1994, is in his ninth year as the 88th Readiness Division’s Joliet Army Training Area range operations supervisor. The 3,600-acre local training area is the largest LTA in the continental United States and the fifth largest under the United States Army Reserve. Joliet also is the only LTA that is among the U.S. Army’s Sustainable Range Program, AR 350-19. This program is the Army's overall approach for improving the way in which it designs, manages, and uses its ranges. SRP's goal is to maximize capability, availability, and accessibility of ranges and training lands.
The training area’s strength is its customer service, said Benjamin, who assumes several different positions, including fire desk operator, and range safety officer. “We pride ourselves in our customer service. We all have been on the other side of the counter especially on the Reserve side. We know that time is important.”
He said one way his staff has saved time for the training units is by completing 90 percent of the paperwork before they arrive. “We streamlined a lot of stuff so units know they can get in here really quick,” said Benjamin.
Case in point: An Ohio unit needed a place to rest overnight or RON. The command team was so impressed with the LTA’s staff accommodating them they told other units. Now, Benjamin said each summer, more than three Ohio units RON at the training area. “They like coming here because they can pull right up in front of the buildings, get out, and they know someone is always waiting for them. The only thing missing is pillow mints,” said Benjamin with a few laughs.
The latter has become an ongoing joke with the RON units. Benjamin said a unit representative will ask him where are their pillow mints? His reply is they are under the pillows, which his staff ensures they are.
The LTA is not large by any means. The cantonment area not including the Reserve Army Center and Area Support Maintenance Activity has six, one-story cement buildings used for sleeping quarters or classrooms, a large building used for a classroom and a shower building with commodes and sinks. It doesn’t even have a soda machine. The buildings are empty except for heaters and window-mounted air conditioners. There is a 55-foot rappel tower near the buildings.
“So, it is really simple, they (the Soldiers) don’t even have to sign for linen,” said Benjamin.
He said several commanders like the training area because they can pull in and either set up cots or sleeping bags quickly.
Benjamin also said the LTA has a good relationship with the local community. For example, if a large water tank on wheels or water buffalo needs filled, the Elwood Fire Department can facilitate this quickly.
Once the Soldiers leave the cantonment area, they have a plethora of training opportunities. These include a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense program gas chamber, an engineer dig site, a M320 Grenade Launcher range for practice rounds and three, 25-meter baffled ranges which have 10 lanes and apt for 9mm pistol and 5.56mm rifle ammunition firing. Military, local, state and federal agencies can use the facilities.
Homeland Security Investigations, Chicago, has trained on the latter ranges for several years. Thomas Ruzevich, senior firearms instructor, HIS, said JATA is the only place his officers can train with their pistols in the local area during spring, summer, and fall. “What the Army provides us in invaluable,” said Ruzevich, a former Secret Service agent who has trained at the facility for 26 years. “The facilities are nice.”
The training area also is nice when it comes to engineer units training on river crossings. There are three launch sites on the Des Plaines River. These crossings take a lot of coordination. Because of substantial barge traffic, the river had to be shut down for four hours for a recent crossing.
On a driving tour of one of these launch sites, Benjamin reflected, “Really, you could be anywhere” in reference to how the training area is like other training areas in the United States.
One aspect of this training area which is different though is the 6,400-acre CenterPoint Intermodal Center – Joliet/Elwood, which is the largest master-planned inland port in North America. The CIC is adjacent to the interchange of the I-55 and I-80 interstates and provides an ideal location for regional/multi-state distribution, e-commerce and reverse logistics, where an estimated 20,000 tractor and trailers roll through daily, is a few miles west of JTA.
“Soldiers have to keep their head on a swivel and look left and right,” said Benjamin of convoys arriving and departing the area.
Like the variety of trucks and trailers exiting and entering the interstates, Benjamin enjoys how every workday is different. He said he could do anything from opening a range to issuing buildings.
“I just love this place, it just grows on you,” said Benjamin. “Working with the units is the best part of the job. It always has been.”