Couriers Ensure Prompt, Secure Delivery of Classified Materials
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill., Nov. 7, 2012 A vintage 12-inch action figure now found only on the Internet depicts the stereotypical defense courier, complete with a black brief case, handcuffs, cell phone and secret papers.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Kelly Adler, right, goes over customer service training with Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Evan Seller at the Defense Courier Station at Royal Air Force Station Mildenhall, Great Britain, Feb. 14, 2012. Adler is one of six airmen and Seller one of four sailors assigned to the station, one of 18 operated around the world by U.S. Transportation Command’s Defense Courier Division. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jerilyn Quintanilla
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Air Force Col. Darryl Stankevitz, chief of U.S. Transportation Command’s Defense Courier Division, quickly dispels the “G.I. Joe Defense Courier” image as he kicks off orientation classes here for service members selected to join the elite corps of defense couriers.
“I tell them, ‘You all thought that when you were coming out here that you would get your own briefcase and set of handcuffs,’” he said. “Well that’s not it. That’s not how we really operate.”
With a heritage dating back to the Military Postal Express Service that moved highly classified and sensitive mail abroad during World War I, the Defense Courier Division remains true to its original mission.
“We move anything that is highly sensitive or classified that our government needs us to move,” Stankevitz said. “It can be anything from an envelope all the way up to large crypto[logical] equipment that’s thousands of pounds.”
One might think the development of the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, better known as SIPRNet, would make most personal deliveries a thing of the past.
Not so, Stankevitz said. That’s because the vast quantity of highly classified messages, documents and images the Defense Department relies on to conduct its day-to-day business would consume so much computer bandwidth that it would overwhelm the classified network, he said.
“There is still a lot of material that must be physically hand-delivered -- partly to ensure that the SIPRNet can keep going,” Stankevitz explained. “Given how much has to be transmitted, real-time, for different operations and events going on, sometimes there’s more that needs to be moved than you can physically do, electronically.
“And it is actually quicker for us, at times, to move some of that physically with our couriers, because of the volume of what we are carrying,” he added.
In addition, many of the courier deliveries involve equipment used to run the Defense Department’s secure networks and cryptologic operations, he said.
“These are items that have to be kept secure while in transit,” Stankevitz said. “It’s not something that you can put in the mail or hand off to [a commercial parcel service] because there could be a risk of tampering in transit. That’s why we need to send a courier.”
The 235 soldiers, sailors and airmen who make up the Defense Courier Division are assigned to 18 stations around the world that maintain 24/7 operations and several other substations. Collectively, according to John McAllister, deputy director, they move about 1.5 million pounds of material annually -- made up of about 80,000 pieces ranging from envelopes, referred to as “flats,” to giant crates transported using the division’s own vans, trucks and tractor trailers.
Although the “James Bond” mystique may be misleading, the couriers operate according to a strict Transcom instruction designed to protect the classified material they handle, store and transport. Working in two-person teams, they are required to maintain constant physical or visual contact with their shipments. The couriers can’t be out of each other’s sight for more than 15 minutes. And contrary to popular assumption, they carry weapons only when traveling through a combat zone.
Couriers typically fly on military, contract or commercial aircraft. But increasingly, especially for deliveries within the continental United States and Europe, they drive the shipments themselves using the courier division’s own fleet of vans, trucks and tractor trailers, Stankevitz said.
“Even though you may think traveling by air would be faster, sometimes you have to rely on the availability of aircraft and their timing,” he noted. “So sometimes it is actually quicker and more convenient for us to use one of our vehicles and drive it on the road.”
McAllister said he spends much of his time planning out missions in the courier division’s operations center. “What are we carrying? How big is it and where does it need to go?” he said. “Those are really the only questions we need to know. We don’t need to know what’s in the package.”
In fact, couriers never know what they are carrying. “What we do know is that it is all highly sensitive material,” Stankevitz said. “It’s some of the most-sensitive material that our nation has.”
Just as computers have changed the nature of many courier shipments, they have helped make the process faster and more efficient. Introducing technology similar to that used by commercial shipping companies, courier division planners now consolidate shipments whenever possible so they can dispatch a single courier team to make deliveries to a single destination.
“Ten years ago, every station was independent,” McAllister said. “But over the years, there has been greater and greater visibility through a centralized command center. We set up a network and started to merge requirements.”
Planners now collaborate with the State Department’s Diplomatic Courier Service, particularly when servicing countries where the U.S. military has no status of forces agreement, McAllister said.
“It all comes down to, what needs to move and who is in the best position to move it, through the interagency,” he added. “So we do a lot of cooperation through the interagency to make the most-efficient move possible.”
These and other efficiencies have made a big impact in the courier division’s bottom line, Stankevitz said, eliminating duplication and reducing costs. Adopting a new air transportation system saved the division $1 million a year, he noted, while having couriers hitch rides on other Transcom air missions eliminated the need for a $4.3 million air carrier and air taxi service contract.
“We’ve become much more efficient in the way we do business,” Stankevitz said. “Our operating cost, which directly ties to what we charge our customers, has dropped about 40 to 45 percent, because of actions we took.”
As he’s witnessed evolution within the Defense Courier Division, Air Force Master Sgt. Delano Lucas still calls it the best job a service member could ever have.
Like all couriers, he came to the field from another military specialty, in his case, he said, attracted by the “chance to do something different.” He added what’s kept him in the career field has been the opportunity to broaden his military portfolio while working in a joint command.
“When you are progressing through the grades, your potential is based on not only what you have done, but your potential to lead effectively in the next grade,” he said. “And what better way of actually displaying that talent and character trait than by going and executing in something that is outside your normal [career field]?”
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Moon said he “jumped at the chance” to join the courier division 14 years ago and has never looked back. He currently serves as chief of the Baltimore Station at Fort Meade, Md., the largest of 18 worldwide, where he oversees 35 fellow couriers.
“It’s much better than I could have expected or hoped for,” he said.
McAllister summed up much of the allure. “Traveling the world delivering top-secret material. It is not a bad way to tell your cousins what you do,” he said.
Another big motivator, Lucas said, has been the opportunity to operate almost autonomously with a level of responsibility rarely afforded a mid-level or senior noncommissioned officer.
“[Couriers] are not only seeing a lot of things and doing something different, but they have an incredible amount of responsibility -- just those two people carrying some of the most-sensitive material that our nation has,” he said.
Stankevitz agreed, adding, “Being entrusted with that is a huge responsibility.”
It’s a responsibility he expects to continue long into the future.
“Changing requirements may change how we operate and where we operate out of, but we will still continue to operate,” Stankevitz said. “Overall, we are still going to see a demand for our business for the foreseeable future.”