FORT MCCOY, Wis. — The Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 1158th Transportation Company got valuable hands-on experience loading its heavy equipment transports (HETs) and other equipment onto rail cars in advance of an upcoming exercise at Fort Hood, Texas.
The 1158th loaded more than 75 pieces of equipment, including the HET tractors and their M1000 trailers for transport from Fort McCoy to Texas July 8-16. The rail load represented the first such training experience for the 1158th in more than a decade, allowing the unit to exercise a critical skill on which it would rely if asked to mobilize with its equipment.
The HET is built to haul the Army’s heaviest equipment, including the M1A1 Abrams Tank, a mission it will undertake at Fort Hood, where it will be responsible for transporting tanks from the Minnesota Army National Guard’s 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Division.
But due to the distance to Texas, loading a platoon’s worth of HETs as well as equipment from the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 107th Maintenance Company on rail cars was the most feasible option, and it represented a rare and valuable training opportunity.
“The rail loading is unique,” Capt. Chris Kauer, the 1158th’s commander said. “I think in the past, we’ve either fallen in on someone else’s equipment, or we’ve convoyed to wherever we’re going. That option doesn’t exist this time, because it’s so far away. Rail loading realistically, if our stuff is going to go overseas, we’d have to rail load it to a port, so this is good practice for that if it were to ever happen.”
Kauer said they’ll get more training next year with a planned rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, for which they will again load their equipment via rail.
“It just gets everybody reps at it,” he said. “When we do a HET school for the new drivers in the company and we get them licensed, they learn how to chain all this stuff down, but it’s not like riding a bike. If you haven’t done it in awhile, you’re going to forget how to do it, because there are certain weights that are associated with certain chains for stuff whether it’s on a trailer or on a railcar. So to be able to do it this many years consecutively and to do it with real equipment… and to move it is super important to make sure these guys are actually ready to do this job if they were asked to.”
That training is critical for the National Guard’s readiness, which the Department of Defense counts on to fulfill both a federal mission to serve as the primary combat reserve of the Army, but also as the first military responder during emergencies here at home.
“Normally we’re hauling everything,” explained Staff Sgt. Tanner Hubert, a team leader in the 1158th. “It’s a little different getting to put our stuff on something to be hauled somewhere instead of hauling everybody else around, and then learning how to tie our stuff down.”
To load the HET tractors or other wheeled vehicles, the 1158th used ramps to drive right onto the rail cars and tie them down with chains. To load the M1000 HET trailers, the unit had to use a crane to lift and place them on the rail cars due to their size.
“There are a lot more chains than we’re used to putting on stuff,” Hubert said. “I guess the rail is not as smooth as you might think it is. They want to make sure everything is tight and chained down good so it doesn’t come off. It’s unique and something we don’t do a whole lot of.”
Sgt. Hunter Carlson was grateful for the experience.
“If you deploy, you’re going to load your vehicles up on a train and they get sent to either a harbor, an airport or whatever,” he said. “They have to get there by rail, so first-hand experience to do it instead of learning it then, it’s nice to have that.”
Carlson and approximately two dozen other Soldiers from the 1158th’s Beloit headquarters and its detachment armory in Black River Falls supported rail loading at Fort McCoy. Approximately 75 Soldiers from the unit will receive the equipment in Texas where they will support and transport the tracked vehicles from the armored brigade combat team between training areas.
Sgt. Dominique Rhodes said that the skills he learned through the process are critical parts of the skills he needs to do his job.
“Normally we’re driving them around, and we’re transporting and picking stuff up and dropping it off, but we rarely just put them on the rail cars and see how that’s done,” he said. “So it’s a nice little system in place, and we should know how to do it.
“I think since we are 88Ms (motor transport operators), we should know how to chain our stuff down on rail cars if we’re going to get it somewhere so we can drive it elsewhere,” he added.
Even non-88M Solders got in on the training.
“Besides all the new learning that I get to do, it is just something different that most people don’t get to say they get to do, and it’s fun for the most part,” said Spc. Kaitlyn Stauffacher, a mechanic in the 1158th. “And I get my workout in.”
She added that these are the sorts of opportunities she enjoys about serving in the Wisconsin National Guard.
“I think besides all the different people you get to meet, just all the different experiences you get to put your hands into,” she said. “Everybody comes from a different background, but when you’re here you just kind of go together, which is nice.”
“It does help with a lot of teamwork,” she added. “Everybody is working on deck making sure no one is going to get hurt and you just get that extra hands-on experience on vehicles, figure out new things that you didn’t know about it, like where the tie downs are you can use.”
But it ultimately comes down to building readiness for the force and its dual-mission.
“If we were asked to mobilize with our equipment, this is really the only way to get it to port, because our stuff is too big to line haul – the HETs anyway,” Kauer said. “So we have to be proficient at this, because if someone came to me tomorrow and said, ‘you guys are going overseas, and you need to bring your HETs with you,’ this is the only way we can get them to the boat. We have to know how to do it, and if we don’t have a lot of time to train up on it, it’s better to have some reps now.”
And that call to move could come at any time.