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Fort Eustis Team Specializes in Moving Cargo

The soldiers who trained Thursday at Fort Eustis might not have the most glamorous job in the Army. But when called upon -- likely on a moment's notice -- hundreds or thousands of lives can depend on how well they perform.

Welcome to the specialized world of the 689th Rapid Port Opening Element -- RPOE in Army shorthand. This unit consists of about 60 soldiers. It is one of three RPOEs in the entire Army.

Its mission: Race to a trouble spot anywhere around the globe and establish an operation to move supplies as fast and as safely as possible. From earthquakes to Ebola outbreaks, they are called in case of major disasters.

During Thursday's exercise, soldiers worked in the giant shadow of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in a remote area of the Newport News post. Forming small teams, they waited until the Chinook hovered just above their heads. Then they hooked up the load -- either a Humvee or a cargo container -- that allowed the helicopter to fly off with its cargo cradled in a sling.

Sling loads come in handy, said Spc. David Bell.

"You can get cargo somewhere much faster than if you have to move it by train or water," he said. "You can't move as much cargo, but you can move a little bit of cargo faster. It just depends on what's more important."

The 689th was on the ground in Haiti after an earthquake devastated that country in January 2010. It deployed to Senegal to assist with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

"We tend to watch the news a lot to see what's going on," said Pfc. Tessa Kramer.

Sometimes the news will throw them a hint. That was the case during the Ebola outbreak, said 1st Lt. Simon Johnstone.

"We were literally watching the president's news conference where he was talking about the troops and supplies and support we were going to provide to West Africa," Johnstone said. "Everything he was outlining sounded just like our capability. Lo and behold, a couple of days later we got the call. It comes real quick."

The RPOE units take turns being on an alert status, ready to deploy within hours. The 689th is currently on alert, a period that lasts 105 days. During that time, the soldiers avoid long trips and prepare themselves to move.

"If we get a phone call, we're out the door," said 1st Lt. Edward McBride. "All of our equipment is staged, ready, strapped down, locked down. It's just a matter of getting to Langley or any other point of aerial debarkation, wherever the president needs us to go."

Given that they tend to be on a short leash, the soldiers jumped at the chance for some hands-on training to hone their skills. As the Chinook landed in a remote clearing, the soldiers braced themselves against buffeting winds and took plenty of video with their smartphones -- that is, if they weren't being called upon.

"We get to play with a live bird, so that's a lot of fun," said Pfc. Justin Parker.

The exercise attracted a handful of Air Force and Navy personnel. RPOE units work closely with the Navy's Military Sealift Command, for example.

Ultimately, it's all about moving lots of stuff.

"That's a big question in transportation," said Pfc. Justin Parker. "Everybody wants to know where their stuff is. We're kind of like the UPS of the Army. We make sure everybody gets their stuff on time and intact."

Spc. Andrew Wulf said the job provides a great deal of satisfaction.

"You do take a lot of pride as a transporter," he said. "It may not be the most glamorous, but it's one of the most important jobs we can do in the Army."

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