Dedication Runs High at MRAP Equipping Facility
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
CHARLESTON, S.C., Jan. 18, 2008 Just before rolling the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle they’ve spent the last several hours configuring with electronics for shipment to Iraq or Afghanistan, crews at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center here slip a simple 8-and-a-half-by-11-inch certificate onto the dashboard.
Christopher Collins (left), a retired Marine staff sergeant, oversees a section that works nonstop equipping six mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles for shipment to deployed troops. Collins described his team as a “band of brothers” that understands the importance of its work. Photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“The SPAWAR Charleston MRAP Team has integrated the electronics capabilities on this MRAP with care and pride,” the certificate reads. “We have done our job so you can do yours. Our goal is your safe tour of duty and return home.”
Beneath the words are some 40 signatures of the people -- about half of them veterans themselves -- who had a hand in installing radios, sensors, jammers and other government-issued equipment into the vehicles.
It’s the final step before the vehicles, with their distinctive V-shaped hulls and beefy profile, get loaded onto aircraft or ships and sent to combat troops whose lives they’re designed to help save from improvised explosive devices and other underbelly blasts.
“I get tingles when I see it,” said Barbara Holliway, whose job is to improve efficiency in the operation outfitting the MRAPs with sensitive gear that makes them combat-ready.
“A lot of people here are veterans themselves or have relatives in Iraq, so putting their names on that piece of paper means a lot to them,” she said. “It’s a thumbprint that we stand behind our equipment. It’s a warranty. It says that the person signing it stands behind their work and feels a personal connection to the people who are going to rely on it.”
Holliway isn’t unique to the sprawling Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center that hums with activity 24-7 as workers pull 10-hour shifts in the rush to keep up with demand for the MRAPs.
As quickly as the vehicles roll off the assembly lines at four major production facilities, they roll into this riverfront facility. Crews crawl in, on and around them over the course of the next several hours, readying them for deployment.
The facility reached its goal of equipping 50 MRAPs a day on Dec. 5 and is now up to 62, with hopes of becoming even more efficient, said Joe Rodgers, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command branch chief for Marine Corps Expeditionary Systems who served 30 years in the Navy.
A full “integration,” as the staff calls it, takes five to 10 hours, depending on the particular model. “Some trucks are more difficult than others, but regardless of which one it is, the work we do here is pretty doggone fast,” said Jim Thigpen, a retired Marine Corps colonel and vice president for the contractor that provides most of the workforce here.
Brian Burger, a former Marine corporal who’s been chief engineer here for the past three years, is credited with coming up with the prototypes required to outfit MRAPs with gear that ,initially, was destined for up-armored Humvees.
“Our job is to figure out a way to get everything in (it) in a way that works, that’s ergonomic and that’s field-friendly,” he said. “We make sure that everything doesn’t just fit, but that it works.”
As a Marine sniper, Burger has an appreciation of the conditions the MRAPs will operate under, and he’s incorporated that know-how into his design prototypes. “I wear two hats here, one as an engineer and one as a Marine,” he said. “I know what gets broken and how hard they are on things, so I make them tougher and able to withstand the rigors.”
One of the big challenges, Burger said, is that there’s no single MRAP design to work with. Several manufacturers churn out a wide range of vehicle variants and continually improve on their products. So, installing C4I gear -- command, control, communications, computers and intelligence equipment – requires constant adaptation.
“(Manufacturers) can move one little thing on the vehicle, and it means we have to make rapid decisions on the line to keep them moving,” he said.
Manufacturers aren’t the only ones making changes. The crews here get feedback from the field, and respond as quickly as possible. “It can be as simple as moving a cable so somebody doesn’t trip,” said Thigpen.
“This definitely isn’t one-size-fits-all where there’s one standard way of doing things that everybody follows,” said Thigpen. “General Motors couldn’t do what we do here running its production lines. For them, when you change horses, it’s a major evolution. We change horses 50 times a day.”
Throughout the factory floor, there’s an appreciation of the importance of the work under way. A large banner stretched out where they enter the building each day reminds them: “Your work is directly supporting the war on terror.”
“People here know, deep down, the kind of vehicle we’re working on,” Burger said. “They know they are the last stop before it gets to Iraq.”
“This is a very energetic workforce,” said Rodgers. “Well into the neighborhood of 54 percent of them are veterans, so the people working the floor here know their brothers are fighting the war. I can’t think of a better motivator.”
Christopher Collins, a retired Marine staff sergeant, oversees a section that works nonstop equipping six MRAPs at a time on three different production lines. “This is a team effort,” he said. “It’s like a Band of Brothers. We work together, learn each other’s habits. It’s just like a platoon.
“We put in long hours and the demand is high, but there’s a lot of dedication and commitment and pride here. You feel it in this building,” he said. “We all understand the cost of freedom and that we have to stay focused on the main issue: our men and women in uniform.”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited the facility today to see progress being made and to thank the people working behind the scenes to bring it about. In addition to his own appreciation, the secretary offered that of “countless moms and dads, husbands and wives and sons and daughters of U.S. troops deployed abroad.”
“I don’t think it will surprise you to hear me say you must keep pressing on,” Gates told the workers. “The need for these vehicles will not soon go away,” he said.
“So keep raising your sights. Keep these vehicles rolling off the line,” he said. “Your efforts are saving lives.”