JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J --
The men and women of the Kentucky Air Guard's 123rd Contingency Response Group set new standards for excellence when they deployed here last month to demonstrate their logistics capability in an austere environment, according to officials from U.S. Transportation Command and the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center.
As a result, U.S. Transportation Command has now verified the 123rd CRG as the first Contingency Response Group in the Air National Guard that's fully capable of operating a Joint Task Force-Port Opening -- a logistics hub that combines an Air Force Aerial Port of Debarkation with an Army trucking and distribution unit.
The Kentucky group, working in conjunction with the U.S. Army's 690th Rapid Port Opening Element, established a fully operational JTF-PO here within 24 hours of the main body's arrival March 26, then proceeded to offload an unprecedented 1,068 short tons of simulated cargo from in-bound planes before trucking it to a forward distribution point over the next three days, inspectors said.
"U.S. Transportation Command officials said we 'knocked it out of the park' and described our performance as 'best seen to date' in two key areas -- cargo operations and force protection," according to Col. Warren Hurst, commander of the JTF-PO and 123rd CRG. "We moved 475 pallets of cargo in just over 72 hours, which was a new record for this exercise.
"That's truly gratifying because it's a reflection of everyone's individual and team efforts. I saw phenomenal teamwork all the way around, from the aerial porters who were downloading aircraft to the Army RPOE Soldiers trucking cargo to the forward node. Right from the start, the RPOE integrated very well with the aerial port and made it a seamless operation."
The Kentucky group has successfully executed this kind of mission before, Hurst noted. In 2010, for example, the 123rd CRG operated one of two overseas airlift hubs supporting earthquake relief operations in Haiti.
Now, with its success in New Jersey, the unit has TRANSCOM's official seal of approval.
"I think we have now truly demonstrated our ability to accomplish this mission anywhere in the world," Hurst said.
"It's a significant milestone in the history of the 123rd CRG, but also for the Air National Guard to have verification on this crucial mission set. Any large response, whether it's for combat operations or humanitarian operations, will need a JTF-PO capability."
Contingency response groups fulfill a unique role in America's military, providing a kind of "airbase in a box." They can deploy to a non-functional airfield and establish aerial port operations within 48 hours, bringing with them all the equipment and expertise required to operate for up to 45 days. Skill sets include air traffic control, cargo handling, power production, aircraft maintenance and security forces.
"We provide everything necessary to get airflow moving into what otherwise would be an inoperable airfield," Hurst explained. "That's a particularly valuable asset following natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes, where relief supplies need to flow in quickly and injured personnel may need to be medevaced elsewhere for medical care."
The Kentucky unit's JTF-PO verification was staged in New Jersey as part of Eagle Flag, a USAF Chief of Staff-directed exercise designed to test a unit's ability to operate in a deployed environment. Traditionally an air base opening exercise, Eagle Flag has evolved into a proof of concept for Joint Task Force-Port Opening, defense support to civil authorities and other contingency operations, according to the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center, which runs Eagle Flag.
The 123rd's exercise began when a Joint Assessment Team of less than a dozen personnel arrived March 25 to survey the airfield, determine whether it could support required operations and begin initial set-up. They found a usable tarmac, a bare patch of sandy ground and little else. The following day, the main body of about 80 Airmen arrived from Louisville, Ky., along with 47 active-duty Soldiers from Fort Eustis, Va. Additional Air Guardsmen from Mississippi and New Jersey augmented the package.
The troops banded together quickly to set up camp, but exercise officials had other plans, noted 1st Lt. Kevin Eilers, the 123rd CRG's bioenvironmental engineering officer. Inspectors decided to delay the simulated arrival of two aircraft carrying most of the equipment needed to erect tents for sleeping quarters. By the time the gear arrived, winds had picked up to 30 knots, and the temperature had dropped to 20 degrees.
"It was pretty cold and very windy," Eilers recalled. "Setting up tents was difficult, but we got it done. Then we didn't have heat in every tent the first night, so it was a pretty tough day. But those folks who did endure the icy temperatures adapted and overcame."
By the next day, operations were humming smoothly, Hurst said, despite constant exercise injects that required JTF-PO members to meet with simulated local military leaders, politicians, journalists and citizens -- all being played by Eagle Flag actors.
"We had initial operating capability within 24 hours of the Joint Assessment Team's arrival, and full operating capability within 42 hours -- six full hours ahead of the exercise requirement," Hurst noted.
"Our public affairs team, two staff judge advocates and chaplain were essential to keeping those operations on track," he added. "All had vital work that contributed directly to our success. Many of the exercise injects could not have been handled without their expertise and professionalism, which allowed the mission to continue without interruption."
Eagle Flag officials had similar praise for several other duty sections, including the Joint Assessment Team, power production, medical, logistics and security forces, which dispatched a highly effective Quick Reaction Force to the forward node -- 5.7 miles away -- about 10 minutes after it came under attack from enemy forces on the next-to-last day.
But their highest praise was reserved for the smooth flow of cargo handled jointly by the Air Guard and Army units.
"You guys moved cargo like no one else," said Lt. Col. Rhett Boldenow, commander of the 421st Combat Training Squadron at Joint Base MDL. "The measure I use is: How many pallets are in the clearance yard? You guys never had more than one airplane's worth of pallets sitting out there at one time. Overall, you did a great job with this mission. I was really impressed. You raised the bar for everyone else."
Master Sgt. Joshua Younce said the credit goes to effective cooperation between Air Guardsmen and Army Soldiers.
"It was truly a purple, seamless operation," said Younce, chief of the 123rd Mobile Aerial Port Flight. "A lot of times, you couldn't tell whether it was the Air Force or the Army that was performing a task. When someone saw a hole that needed to be filled, they jumped in and filled it."
Army Maj. Keith Pruett agreed.
"I've not had a lot of opportunity to work closely with the Air Force," said Pruett, commander of the 690th RPOE. "I've never dealt with an APOD. So building that teamwork with blue and green, and just getting the job done -- that was seamless, I think. Everyone knew what we had to do, from operations to customs to clearance out to the forward node. It was the smoothest operation I've ever been a part of."
For Col. Spike Owens, commander of the USAF Expeditionary Operations School, the JTF-PO's weeklong demonstration was "an incredible performance."
"You should be very impressed with what you accomplished over the past week," Owens told the Airmen and Soldiers during an Eagle Flag outbrief March 30. "There's no doubt in my mind you guys are ready to go execute the mission."
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