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ZUTENDAAL, Belgium, March 30, 2022 -  – Under fuel-powered lights on an otherwise dark airstrip, newly deployed Soldiers walked their personal equipment from buses to awaiting Bobtail truck tractors, preparing to haul empty trailers overnight.
The Soldiers, with the 96th Heavy Equipment Transportation Company, 49th Transportation Battalion, 13th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, deployed from Fort Hood, Texas, to sign for their transport vehicles at Zutendaal Army Depot in the Limburg region of Belgium to receive heavy equipment in Grafenwoehr, Germany.

The 96th HET Co. is the first in a series of units transitioning through U.S. Army Garrison Benelux as part of the multinational NATO response force, activated to protect allies as need may arise in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The 405th Army Field Support Brigade and contracted personnel initially drew equipment from the Army prepositioned stock (APS-2) sites from Zutendaal as well as from Eygelshoven, the Netherlands, and Dülmen, Germany, in early February to reposition equipment further east. Now troops are on the ground performing the mission.
The heavy rumble of Bobtail engines resounded over the forest-lined airstrip, and headlights and flashing yellow safety lights provided Soldiers further visibility as they made final preparations for their drive into Germany. This initial push of vehicles overnight, as well as the contracted equipment draws, was the result of planning and toil by teams at USAG Benelux, from garrison personnel and mission partners, who quickly built up a site for the Soldiers to live at their Brunssum, Netherlands location, to the 405th Army Field Support Battalion – Benelux, who kept and maintained the equipment for their arrival, to the several other Army units who provided further operational support.
Planning began several weeks prior as the situation in Europe intensified due to large Russian troop movements near the Ukrainian border. Leadership at USAG Benelux understood it was possible the garrison could be called upon to host incoming military personnel.
Nicole Hatch, the future operations chief for the garrison, did an assessment of the billeting capacity of Chièvres Air Base and Caserne Daumerie in Belgium, of the sites in the Brussels community and of the four APS-2 sites.
“We had no specified mission at the time, but we knew there would be something asked of us,” Hatch said. “So we wanted to have a plan on the books that we could take and refine as additional guidance came in.”
When it became clear the 96th HET Co. was coming to pick equipment up from APS-2 Zutendaal, the garrison looked at the possibility of billeting the Soldiers on location. That plan had some conveniences, as the Soldiers would live and work in one place.
“However, Zutendaal (Army Depot) is a very austere environment,” said Hatch. “There’s no (Morale, Welfare and Recreation), there’s no commissary. Cell signal is not good. So we made the determination that the best place for life support is Brunssum.”
With little lead time, the garrison and mission partners determined where they would house the incoming Soldiers: in a few of the warehouses at Brunssum. There would be support services available to the unit, and a contracted bus could shuttle them to their worksite and back daily. Of course, warehouses, which are not made for housing people, required modification before they become livable.
Beds to sleep in and tables to eat at could be added to the warehouse, but the weather in the Netherlands is cold during late winter, and heating needed to be added. Furthermore, Soldiers need latrines and places to wash hands.
Many Army installations have dining and medical facilities. The Army site at Brunssum does not have those, and plans had to be made and executed quickly to account for some of the gaps that came of turning a previously unlivable space into a livable one.
“Although we did a lot of planning, there were more refinements that needed to happen when people got on the ground,” said Hatch.
Planning and execution was a continuous process right up to and through the arrival of the Soldiers at their new location. Rodney Harris, the garrison site manager for Eygelshoven Army Depot, led several teams to help meet the needs of the Soldiers before and after they arrived.
He worked with the on-post troop store and commissary to extend their hours so the Soldiers could shop after returning from work at Zutendaal late in the day. The Army and Air Force Exchange Services even sent out a food truck and rodeo to Zutendaal to provide for them out there. The Directorate of Emergency Services assessed the fire response measures for proposed changes to the warehouse areas and made recommendations for changes. The Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation worked on providing quality-of-life services to the stationed Soldiers in their off-time. The Defense Commissary Agency, USO and Red Cross provided additional support for the troops as well.
Harris emphasized the importance of the garrison’s role in current real-world operations: “At our four APS-2 sites, this is the Super Bowl.”
“We’re doing what we were put here to do,” he said. “Our mission is to provide the base operations support that the unit needs to be able to issue equipment to the gaining tactical unit.”
Housing equipment at the APS-2 sites, as USAG Benelux does, means that putting troops to equipment in the European theater is a quicker, safer process.
“The APS-2 stock speeds up the timeline of getting battle-ready troops to the battle by an enormous amount,” said Hatch of the importance of the garrison mission. “We don’t have to bring tanks and HETs and gear all the way across the ocean.”
That accelerated pace in this now real-world situation meant garrison teams worked every day and through weekends to ensure mission success. Even as the troops arrived, work continued to improve the logistics support area at Brunssum. DPW worked to ensure the industrial heaters were sealed correctly with the warehouse. A large blivet of water was filled and ready for use for showers. Upon the arrival of the first 100 troops, the garrison and DFMWR provided a warm welcome and put together a barbecue for the Soldiers when catered meals were not possible the evening of March 6.
The garrison teams continue to build and better the new facilities.
“Now that we have it,” said Hatch, “we’re hoping to get to a steady state where the capacity is built, the warehouse has the beds in it, the heat is at the right temperature, the dining facility is figured out, and it’s just a matter of executing rather than creating.”
As the garrison teams focused on ensuring the Soldiers had adequate living facilities, the Soldiers with 96th HET Co. then could focus on their mission at Zutendaal Army, where they received, inspected and prepared their Bobtails and trailers for the road, readying for their nighttime convoy.
“People are leaning forward, contributing in a very, very positive way,” said Steve Campfield, the garrison site manager for Zutendaal Army Depot. “I see the team continue to grow and build.”
From March 7 through 9, they pulled their equipment out in long lines along the site’s airstrip and inspected their equipment. On March 9, they refueled them for the road.
Capt. Frank L. Varner III, 96th HET Co. commander, expressed his pleasure at receiving the vehicles.
“The vehicles have been in pretty good shape,” he said. “The APS-2 site has been awesome. They’ve been with me every step of the way, making sure I see every item, see the serial numbers. They’ve been helping our guys with the maintenance.
“The Soldiers, they feel invigorated right now,” he continued, “coming out here and being actually able to do their mission in the real world: It’s a driver.”
The 96th HET Co. is working with several other units on their mission. Chief among them is the 405th Army Field Support Battalion – Benelux, who maintains the equipment and who issues it to the gaining tactical unit. Maj. Sherry Childs, the executive officer for 405th AFSBn. Benelux, talked about performing the mission because of real-life circumstances as opposed to conducting an exercise.
“There’s more of an urgency because it is a real-life situation, and there is an importance to make sure you are doing it right,” Childs said.
Childs said that attention to detail has sharpened because of the real-world urgency.
“The whole point of us being out here in this garrison or in the battalion is for the Soldiers who come out,” she said. “We work each day to get better so that we can be the best and do the best for the Soldiers that come over here.”
Another unit providing mission support is the 18th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 16th Sustainment Brigade. Once the 96th HET Co. deployed, they were received by the 18th CSSB, who staged them and then planned and prepared them for their time in Europe.
Lt. Col. John Abella, 18th CSSB commander, explained their role.
“This really is a team-of-teams mission,” he said. “As this company falls in with the 16th Sustainment Brigade, we are supported by several companies across Europe.”
Refuelers from the 515th Transportation Company refueled the Bobtails. Maintainers from the 317th Support Maintenance Company provided maintenance to the vehicles. Personnel from the 39th Movement Control Battalion provided logistical support. And drivers with the 51st Composite Truck Company provided training.
The 96th HET Co., although highly experienced in driving HETs in the U.S., had no experience driving the M1302 enhanced heavy equipment transport (EHET) trailer, which the Army has only used in Europe. Nor had the drivers any mission experience on European roads. The 51st CTC are both driving the Bobtails on these initial drives from Zutendaal to Grafenwoehr as well as providing the 96th HET Co. training for their further mission requirements.
“The Bobtails themselves are no different than the ones they use in the United States,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brian Fakkema, head platoon sergeant for 51st CTC. “The learning gap is essentially just the trailer. It’s all electronic, it’s smaller, it turns differently. So that’s why we brought our guys out.”
“The Soldiers morale has boosted up since we got here,” said Varner of the 96th HET Co. “Just the excitement of being able to learn new equipment and being able to drive in another country, they are very pumped up and ready to do this.”
Ultimately, the mission is to the east, and the support USAG Benelux and teams have provided the Soldiers is about setting them off on the correct footing.
“I am very proud of our team for rallying round this historic mission in support of U.S. Army Europe and Africa, U.S. European Command, and NATO,” said USAG Benelux commander, Col. James Yastrzemsky. “We have been placing a lot of rigor into our garrison APS-2 program and preparing for these types of deployments at all our sites during various exercises. It truly has been a whole-of-garrison and mission partner approach in support of deployed Soldiers to provide a ‘home away from home’ and to set them off straight on their assigned mission. We stand ready to support future operations.”   Story by Bryan Gatchell. Photo by Sandra Wilson.