MANNHEIM, Germany — Cold drizzle fell on Staff Sgt. Christopher Couture's face as he checked inventory paperwork on the front slope of an M1A2 Abrams tank at Coleman Worksite.
Couture, 33, of Lake City, Fla., a tank commander with Company C, 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, was among troops recently tasked to turn in tons of gear to the European Activity Set, or EAS, following 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division's maneuvers in Europe. Much of the EAS' turn-in process involves hard work - driving tracked vehicles, off-rail cars, hosing them down at the wash rack and inventorying gear, Couture said.
"Accountability is the biggest challenge, making sure everybody has everything and keeping all your paperwork straight, plus keeping track of any faults with any equipment you have," Couture said.
The unit is part of U.S. Army Europe's Regionally Aligned Force. As part of Atlantic Resolve, the brigade conducted multinational training in nine European countries, working to improve interoperability with allied NATO military partners. The final step, before returning to Fort Stewart, Georgia, was to move, clean and return vehicles to the EAS.
Fog and frigid weather did not deter the "Rock of the Marne" Soldiers as they worked together to safely make it home in time for the holidays. They took their tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and other equipment off rail cars at Coleman Worksite, a U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz facility just a few kilometers east of the Rhine River and just north of the city of Mannheim.
As Army Capt. Malik Shahkaram drove his rental van out to chat with the "rail-meister," what U.S. troops have long-called German train engineers, he received a text from his wife back stateside. He wrote her back just as the last train - full of self-propelled howitzers, Humvees and other vehicles - motored toward the rail head.
Shahkaram, 38, an air defense artillery officer from Florida, is known to most at Coleman simply as "Capt. Shack." It's the second time in a year that he's overseen the draw and return of EAS equipment.
"The most important thing here is safety," he said. "We're dealing with multiple types of equipment and different languages - notice the rail-meister does not speak English and we speak only a little German - so communication is key and safety is the priority for all of us here."
Coleman was once home to thousands of U.S. Soldiers.
Now, rotational forces from the United States, supporting U.S. Army Europe, draw gear from the EAS at Coleman. Maneuvers in the Baltics and other sites in Europe concluded in early December. While most of the U.S. Soldiers flew stateside, Couture and his fellow 1st Brigade comrades, flew to Germany to receive the equipment in Mannheim.
As the final train inched toward the unloading ramp, a few dozen muddy-booted Soldiers clustered next to a civilian contractor wearing a neon-yellow smock. Despite being cold and gray, a sense of determination was present as small groups set to work on the train, lowering railcar ramps, unhooking securing chains and knocking out chock blocks.
The 405th Army Field Support Brigade oversees the EAS mission, which is supported by PAE contractors. Once cleaned, the vehicles undergo maintenance and are stored for the next rotation.
U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz, or USAG-RP, hosts the Soldiers during their stay.
In all, 3rd Infantry Division Soldiers spent about nine days living at Rhine Ordnance Barracks in Kaiserslautern. Each morning, the Soldiers took buses along German Autobahn 6, through the Pfalz forest and into the Rhine River valley.
The vast woods and German villages along the way couldn't be more different for Staff Sgt. Joeten Abraham, 34, who comes from Pohnpei, Micronesia, a Pacific island nation roughly 8,000 miles away, which was once a German colony from 1899 to 1914. Like other troops, Abraham, a Company C tank commander, was glad the turn-in mission was on schedule, he said.
"Everything's gone smooth," Abraham said.
USAG-RP supports the mission in a variety of ways, said Matt Wheeler, the garrison's site manager. Coleman was nearly closed when the Army decided to preposition military equipment there. That meant garrison staff had to reestablish critical infrastructure - electricity, lighting, heat, toilets and security, Wheeler said.
It's the second time the equipment was drawn from and returned to Coleman. It's becoming normal operations, he said.
"With each rotation we get a little bit better, we learn a little bit more about how we can better support the Soldiers," Wheeler said.
One major repair needed was the wash rack, a murky basin of water about as large as an Olympic-size swimming pool with high-pressure hoses. Because Coleman was closing, and the wash rack hadn't been used in years, a good cleaning was necessary, Wheeler said.
Garrison contractors drained the water, dredged sludge from the bottom, fixed an oil-water separator and added new hoses, he said.
"The water they use to wash the vehicles comes from that basin," Wheeler said. "The cleaner the water, the cleaner their vehicles."
In the Baltics, thick mud caked on tank tracks and wheels. The cleaning facilities there were not well established, so a good cleaning was needed. At Coleman, the renovated wash rack did the trick.
"The one they have here helped out a lot," Abraham said. "This one did the job."
The 10-day mission wrapped up just in time for the troops to fly home to their Families for the holidays. While [here], they completed leave forms and mandatory training. In their free hours, they took in local sites in Kaiserslautern and Heidelberg.
"We've had a little bit of time to go check out the Christmas market in K-town," Couture said, using the American nickname for Kaiserslautern. "People also went to Ramstein to watch movies in their downtime."