ARABIAN GULF – Most Soldiers practice marksmanship at a weapons range. For the U.S. Army’s 411th Transportation Detachment from the 1st Theater Sustainment Command, the crew aboard the MG Charles P. Gross (Logistics Support Vessel-5), a range day means cruising out to international waters.
The ship left for the Arabian Gulf in the dark morning hours Oct. 3 from Kuwait Naval Base with its heavy crew-served weapons at the ready.
The Army mariners aboard the massive-decked ship are charged with using the largest transportation ship in the Army’s fleet to transport dozens of trucks and up to 15 M1 Abrams tanks. The vessel can carry about 900 tons of cargo. So, the 30-plus Soldier crew must be ready to defend the ship and its valuable cargo with machine guns.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kevin Toomey, 411th TD third mate and a Port Tobacco, Maryland resident, said his Soldiers are comfortable shooting a variety of weapons from the hull and bridge of the ship.
“Just like doing a live fire off a truck in a truck company, this is where we live and this is how we have to go out to shoot,” said Toomey, who is the officer in charge of range operations.
Mk-19 grenade launchers, .50-caliber machine guns, M249 squad automatic weapons and M4 carbine rifles are used to form fighting positions in a 360-degree perimeter around the vessel, similar to the turrets in a convoy.
“We are prepared for enemy forces,” said Toomey, who has spent two years in the Fort Eustis, Virginia-based unit. “People are counting on us. Moving place to place in these waters is very important. If we can’t move, it hinders everyone else’s capabilities.”
During the past year, the ship has transported equipment to Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as well as other destinations in the 20-nation area of operations for U.S. Army Central.
The Gross navigates busy shipping lanes throughout the Arabian Gulf through dense fishing areas filled with Kuwaiti Dhow fishing boats to the Strait of Hormuz.
That means the crew must be ready to defend against any threat, whether it takes the form of military-grade Iranian speedboats or a small suicide boat attack like the one used in the al Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 that killed 17 U.S. service members.
A voice comes over the radio, echoing over the open waters: battle stations. The crew races to get in place. Body armor and helmets are strapped on. Teams move to their fighting positions.
“From the time we make contact, we try to get everybody in place as quickly and as safely as possible to execute,” Toomey said. “According to the station bill, we are all one team and everybody plays a key role in vessel defense – even if you are a cook or a medic or whatever. We involve everybody.”
Pfc. Robin Davis, a 411th TD culinary specialist from Waldorf, Maryland, fired the Mk19 grenade launcher for the first time with mixed reviews.
“It wasn’t the sweet music of my .50 cal,” she joked.
The Soldiers fire at giant “killer tomato” targets that are similar to a bright orange bounce house at a county fair. Except, the Soldiers get to gun down the inflatable behemoth until it disappears into the waves.
A range day at sea also means the Soldiers get to test the skills necessary to keep the crew and ship safe.
The Army mariners run through a fire drill, where each Soldier dons fire equipment to battle a mock blaze, an abandon ship drill and a “man overboard” drill and a drill to abandon the ship.
The varying scenarios mean each Solder has to be a fireman, lifeguard and ready to lead during a bad situation.
“Firing these weapons today means the young Soldiers get to experience weapons and drills they might not see on a regular line unit,” said Staff
Sgt. Tony Burnette, the ship boatswain for the 411th TD.
Burnette, of Cuthbert, Georgia, said holding each Soldier responsible for the safety of the vessel and fellow Soldiers brings them closer — like a family.
“Everybody is a sister, a brother, a father, a mother. We look out for one another,” he said.
“We are a tight-knit group, which you might not get in some other units because we are so small.”
His unique position places him in charge of all the equipment and Soldiers above the waterline of the vessel. He has been in the job for the past 13 years, starting as a private on the deck.
Being a Soldier at sea, Burnette says, is one of “the best jobs” in the Army.
“I love it,” Burnette said. “Once you get on the water, it is just you and the Gulf. You see the sunrise and the sunset.”