SATTAHIP, Kingdom of Thailand --
Moving all 2,200-members of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, thousands of tons of associated equipment, hundreds of military vehicles and dozens of aircraft, during back to back deployments time and again, is a daunting task.
This task falls on the shoulders of the MEU logistics chief, Gunnery Sgt. David Vanderwest, one of the individuals essential in getting the unit from Okinawa, Japan, aboard Navy ships and then ashore again in dozens of nations in the Asia-Pacific.
Vanderwest, a 33-year-old native of Reese, Mich., enlisted in the Marine Corps and went to boot camp in June 1996. As a young Marine, he never envisioned the position he would eventually find himself in.
“I originally joined the reserves as a mortarman to go to college, but I lateral moved into the embarkation field,” said Vanderwest. “I never imagined that I would be where I’m at today and I love every day of it.”
Vanderwest’s responsibilities as logistics chief involve planning and overseeing the transport of all 31st MEU equipment, vehicles, aircraft and personnel to and from the Navy ships assigned to support the unit. Working closely with Marine embarkation specialists, enables Vanderwest to create a detailed load plan for every item the 31st MEU embarks.
“First and foremost I work with all the Marines who help me do my job, such as our red-patch landing support team,” Vanderwest said. “I’m very fortunate to have these Marines working with me. They are solid Marines, they know their job and they make my life easy. Without them, the MEU couldn’t do what it does.”
Every time the 31st MEU reaches a destination in the Asia-Pacific or departs a country after the completion of its mission, Vanderwest’s embarkation team executes their detailed load plans. Currently, the team is removing MEU elements from Exercise Cobra Gold 2012.
“Today we sent 57 vehicles, hundreds of Marines and Sailors and more than 200 tons of gear to the ships,” said Sgt. Greg P. Spies, unit movement and control coordinator chief for the 31st MEU, who works for Vanderwest. “It’s a long process to get everyone where they need to go, and it takes a lot of planning, but we are out here getting it done.”
The 31st MEU typically deploys 2-3 times per year, visiting at least 2 countries per deployment. Counting the embarkation from the unit’s home in Okinawa, Vanderwest’s team is responsible for moving the entire 31st MEU an average of 12 times per year.
Despite the massive responsibility of Vanderwest’s team upon arrival or departure, the Marines’ work doesn’t end with embarkation and debarkation. Exercise Cobra Gold 2012 demonstrated how Vanderwest and his team extend their expertise in logistics beyond the pier.
“For this exercise, I am the Camp Commandant of one of the training areas as well as the logistics coordinator for the southern areas of Thailand, where the MEU is operating during Cobra Gold,” said Vanderwest. “That means we must coordinate and facilitate everything the elements in this area might need such as water, ice, food, containers, vehicles and transportation, as well as other contracted services.”
Vanderwest has a clear understanding of his responsibilities as the logistics chief, but the experienced Marine finds it difficult to explain his role to family and friends.
“People at home get glimpses of what we do through photos and Facebook, but there is no way I could ever explain everything that goes on,” said the graduate of Reese High School. “It is hard to portray exactly what we do and hard to share the gravity it holds.”
One of the issues difficult to express to friends and family is the level of forethought required of Vanderwest to be successful in his planning. The massive movement, coupled with complications like customs inspections, requires the embarkation team to think ahead while accomplishing their tasks.
“While we are off-loading, we are also planning for the backload,” said Vanderwest. “The backload is often the biggest challenge because not only do we have to coordinate the retrograde of all equipment and personal from the training areas, but we also have to plan for the wash-down and agricultural inspections of gear.”
Another concern for the team is the phasing of equipment movements. Improper planning can lead to inefficient loads, delaying the process.
“The movement all has to fall in line sequentially so that everything gets to the port at the right time to be loaded back onto the ship,” said Vanderwest. “You don’t want to have too many things or people showing up too early at the landing craft ramps, but you also don’t want to have too little there, so you can maximize your lift. It takes careful, coordinated planning to make happen.”
Vanderwest also maintains constant communication with Navy counterparts from the ships, as most of the equipment is transported via Navy landing craft.
“We work very well with our Navy team every minute of this process,” he explained. “We get it done together, and that makes it easier, more fluid, and enables us to overcome unexpected challenges together.”
His Navy counterparts are quick to praise Vanderwest’s skill in coordination.
“If he (Vanderwest) were not here, all of this couldn’t happen.” said Navy Chief Warrant Officer 4 Dan Fonner, officer in charge of the Navy Beach Master Unit, one of the people Vanderwest works with daily to get the job done. “We all are part of the planning process to ensure that each piece fits where it needs to go. We plan for success and he [Vanderwest] is the best at it.”
Despite the success and effeciency of Vanderwest and his team, their mission often requires them to be some of the last Marines to leave the shore. This means Vanderwest and his Marines spend much of their time away from home.
“Our job only stops when everybody and everything is gone from the exercise,” he said. “We might have a few months home or just a few weeks depending on what exercises are coming up.”
Despite the challenges and time away from home related to his job, Vanderwest finds enjoyment in his position as logistics chief and shares his accomplishments proudly.
“Moving a MEU is like roping the moon,” he smiles. “It is a huge challenge every year, every exercise. I love it and I have such a huge sense of accomplishment for what I’ve done, the six back to back deployments I’ve been with the MEU, the seven UDP rotations, and all the conferences, the planning, the execution. I will never forget this time, and it is has been stressful but rewarding. I’m sure I’ve aged a few years more than just the two and a half I’ve been here, but it has been great.”
The 31st MEU is the U.S.’s expeditionary force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region, and regularly does two or more deployments a year.