Container managers make a difference

Patti Bielling

Tracking 135,000 containers in a hostile environment is a daunting task, but the Soldiers of the 184th Transportation Command Element carried out their mission and ultimately helped save the Defense Department millions of dollars.

The savings resulted from the unit’s efforts to help find and return shipping containers within the Central Command theater, thereby reducing and avoiding accrual of detention fees.

About half of the 100-member Mississippi National Guard unit organized and deployed in December 2004 as the 184th Container Management Element for the Military Surface Deployment & Distribution Command.

Their area of responsibility was vast, stretching from the horn of Africa through the Persian Gulf region and into Central Asia. About 5,000 containers arrive in the theater each month, bringing coalition troops the supplies they need, from beans to bullets.

Most of the 20- and 40-foot boxes belong to commercial ocean carriers, and detention fees arise when these transportation containers are not returned in a set time.

Influencing the return of containers in a hostile and austere environment required resourcefulness, said Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Edwards, mobility warrant officer in the 184th.

“No unit had this mission before,” Edwards said. “The CME had to go forth and shake the bushes for containers with almost no guidance but to go up there and start getting containers to move south.”

With more than 130,000 containers in the theater and about 7,000 moving in or out each month, the mission was immense.

“The first order of business was a wall-to-wall inventory,” Edwards said. “We had to know what assets we had in order to know how to manage them.”

Tracking down the boxes in forward areas outside of container yards was especially challenging, Edward said. Units use the vast majority of containers for storing supplies, but some are used for living quarters, office space, or even barricades to protect U.S. forces.

“Nothing would surprise me about how containers are being used,” Edwards said. “I even saw Iraqis using them as jails.”

From a practical perspective, containers provide convenient, flexible, mobile and secure storage where no warehousing exists. However, containers held past their “free time” begin racking up detention fees of $9 to $85 per container per day.

Managing container detention costs requires cooperation and a change in mindset, said Doug Anderson, global container management director for SDDC.

“People tend to think of container detention as a transportation issue requiring a transportation solution,” Anderson said. “But the whole process is really one of managing materiel and storage rather than managing movement, and that requires the efforts of many agencies, including shippers, ocean carriers, theater logisticians, and the war fighting units. “The 184th began by creating a database of containers, which was eventually merged into the Container Management Support Tool, an SDDC product designed specifically for tracking the boxes, Edwards said.

The unit worked closely with the Coalition Forces Land Component Command and Multi-National Force–Iraq, the Combined Joint Task Force 76 in Afghanistan, and other logistics professionals to produce results.

“They had a multiplier effect in the end,” Anderson said. “By the time the unit redeployed, detention charges had been reduced by over one-third.”

The unit’s accomplishments are especially extraordinary given the challenging conditions, Anderson said.

“In a hostile environment, container management is sometimes a lower priority than other critical mission items,” he said. “It’s to their credit that they could get visibility over the issue and work with people to make substantive changes in the way they do business.”

Even though most of the unit’s Soldiers have returned home to Laurel, Miss., other members of the 184th Transportation Command Element have deployed to take their place.

Anderson said that is good news for the container management mission.

“They have the right mix of calm and aggressiveness to make a difference,” he said. “The unit had no experience and no model to follow, but they used a quiet persistence and an ability to work with people to create an operation in the whole theater that provided visibility and accountability of assets in a highly charged environment.”

The container management mission reflects the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command’s expanded role from traffic management to end-to-end surface distribution.

Deploying a container management element was part of an overall strategy to reduce detention fees, including purchasing containers for use within the theater and transloading supplies from carrier-provided containers into government-owned containers.

Patti Bielling, Command Affairs Specialist SDDC Headquarters Fort Eustis

COPYRIGHT 2006 U.S. Military Traffic Management Command

COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group

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