- The Washington Times - Friday, February 14, 2003

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. Military officials here scrambled yesterday to load helicopters and other war equipment belonging to the nation's premier airborne unit onto two massive Navy ships, which will deliver the cargo to the Middle East by early March.
The Army's 101st Airborne Division, about 20,000 soldiers based out of Fort Campbell, Ky., got orders from the Pentagon last week to begin a full-scale deployment to the Middle East, where about 100,000 U.S. troops are gathering for a likely invasion of Iraq.
While 16 of the 101st's helicopters are still in Afghanistan, where the division played an integral role in defeating the hard-line Taliban regime after the September 11 attacks, the majority of its gear is being hustled by train from Fort Campbell to Jacksonville.
Once there, about 270 Blackhawk, Apache, Kiowa and Chinook helicopters and a variety of wheeled vehicles, including a large convoy of Humvees and tactical camouflage transport trucks, are being tightly packed onto the USNS Bob Hope and the USNS Dahl.
With hangar bays more than three football fields in length and three stories high, the two ships are on target to be fully packed and to leave the Port of Jacksonville on the three-week journey to the Middle East by tomorrow, according to Brig. Gen. Edward J. Sinclair, the division's assistant commander.
One military official involved in the ship packing, being orchestrated by the U.S. Military Sealift Command, said that it is "like moving a small town to another part of the world."
While much of the equipment is bulky, it also is delicate.
"Moving a helicopter is like moving an egg. It's easily damaged," said Col. Tom E. Thompson, chief of staff for U.S. Military Traffic Management Command.
While the Bob Hope and the Dahl are owned by the Navy, they're operated by private companies under contract to the Military Sealift Command. Each ship has a crew of about 30 civilian mariners, skilled in quick ways to move equipment over long distances for the Army.
Each helicopter being loaded onto the ships yesterday had been specially shrink-wrapped in sheets of white plastic to protect against corrosion from salt water and moisture on the trip overseas.
"The shrink-wrapping is not hard at all; the hardest part is actually getting the plastic over the aircraft," said Spc. Seleta McCray, 29, who helped wrap the helicopters and used heat guns to shrink the material to tightness.
Asked whether he fears his equipment may not reach Iraq in time for the potential invasion, Gen. Sinclair said: "Absolutely not. … We'll be able to project our power when we get there."
The Bob Hope and the Dahl are part of a 19-ship program started in the mid-1990s to improve the rapid shipment of large amounts of equipment worldwide.
The ships are particularly valuable to the 101st because the division needs to get to the Middle East quickly, military officials said. Unlike other ships contracted by the Military Sealift Command, equipment can be rolled directly onto and off of these ships rather than being lifted by cranes, in the manner of standard commercial shipping.
As the backbone of the Pentagon's ocean cargo transportation system, the Military Sealift Command normally operates about 120 civilian-crewed cargo ships.

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