By COL (Ret) Gary L. Gresh, former Commander, 18th Personnel Group
Fate has a way of throwing you a curve ball when you least expect it and perhaps when you are the least able to react quickly enough. So it was in August 1990 as I unpacked boxes in my newly assigned quarters on Pelham Road, Fort Bragg, NC, in preparation to become the next Adjutant General of the 18th Airborne Corps and the first Commander of the 18th Personnel Group, a new structure being fielded in 1990. Little did I know that the next day, while continuing to unpack boxes, I would receive a telephone call from the Corps Operations Center asking me to report to the headquarters immediately to meet with the leadership team of the Corps. I would not return to live in my quarters until May of the next year, as we were quarantined, briefed, and began immediate preparation for deployment to Saudi Arabia to begin Operation Desert Shield and subsequently Operation Desert Storm in January 1991.
Kuwait had been invaded by Iraq, and the 18th Airborne Corps was going to make the Iraqi army go back home. Fate had struck again and this time I felt particularly unprepared. I had not even been to my office, I knew only a few of the assigned Officers and NCOs of the AG office in the Corps, and I was completely unprepared for the firestorm of activity with which I was about to embark. I was immediately plunged into the most stressful and action packed preparation I had ever witnessed and quite literally felt like a cork floating on a fast running river, which I had absolutely no control over and knew nothing of where the river was taking me.
I had arrived at Fort Bragg ready to transition the Corps AG Office to the 18th Personnel Group for which I had been selected as the first Commander of that Group, which was to stand up sometime between October 1990 and January 1991. I next remember sitting on a 747 jet headed for Saudi Arabia with the advanced party of the Corps, a group of superb Officers and NCOs who would together begin the next 6 months of round the clock preparation to plan, receive, and set up a deployed Airborne Corps on the sands of Saudi Arabia, an absolute Human Resources (HR) nightmare of planning, coordination, and execution.
Since 1776, the American Army ran on paperwork – forms starting with the unit morning report of who was present, to who was sick, and where all units were stationed. Nothing really changed in the Army from 1776 to 1980 in regards to paperwork! We still shuffled paper to accomplish most anything. When the 18th Corps deployed in August 1991, we had no internet, no laptop computers, no i-Phones, no wi-fi, no Facebook, no Twitter, and perhaps biggest of all, NO E-MAIL! We had CNN on TV if we were lucky and telephone lines. The Army Personnel Community had been planning for automation for almost 20 years, but everything was bulky, cumbersome, and had to be tied together by phone lines. The TACCS box alone, the Army’s basic automation device, was the size of two-foot lockers and took two Soldiers to load and unload from any vehicle.
When we began leaving Fort Bragg on 10 August 1991, we were unplugged from the Army personnel system, SIDPERS, and had only the database we had taken with us into Saudi Arabia. We had about a dozen TACCS boxes, each supporting about 500 troops, and absolutely no electronic connection with the Department of the Army, except over long distance phone lines. I was convinced that I was about to become the first Commander of the 18th Personnel Group, but also the first Commander to be relieved when I could not even tell the Corps Commander how many troops we had in country on any given day!
Lest I forget, it was not only those of us at Fort Bragg who were putting in 24 hour days, as all HR professionals in the Army were working overtime to help the effort. The DCSPER mobilized every personnel asset he could to help support the coming battle. Korea, Europe, and the Reserve components, and the Commandant of the AG School ramped up to support the effort with deployed units, deployed individual fillers and replacements, and the DCSPER himself, called me several times to ask what I needed and how they could support. It was a model of cooperation among personnel support agencies.
Pulling on the basics of Personnel Doctrine, we knew we had four core competencies and seven functions we had to be prepared to accomplish while protecting, sustaining, and taking care of the Soldiers assigned to us to do the personnel mission. I soon learned that giving only mission-style orders, and allowing individual ingenuity and innovation to run wild among the Company Grade Officers and NCOs was the only way to succeed in this environment. You just had to trust your subordinates until or unless they proved unworthy.
For this web article, I will concentrate on the four most demanding tasks we had to overcome while trying to support a deployed and growing Corps: Organization, Automation, Mail, and Logistics.
Organization – we had none. We deployed as an AG section only to find all of our personnel assets spread across the Corps Support Command with little in the way of vehicles and life support to stand on their own as we transitioned to a Personnel Group Structure. Innovative Company Grade Officers, NCOs, and Professional Civilians came together to advise, plan and support the construction of a Group structure while deployed in the challenging and taxing environment of Saudi Arabia. The DCSPER and MILPERCEN provided individual fillers as needed to flush out a Group staff and the P&A Battalion Commanders and staffs came together to form an effective Group structure. The Corps Commander decided to form the group early and to detach all units from the COSCOM so that the COSCOM could focus on its huge mission of bringing ammunition and supplies into the Corps. This left the Personnel Group on its own to form, set up operations, and support itself as it almost doubled in size weekly. The Officers and NCOs took on this challenge with absolute resolve and “got–it-done.”
Automation – we had some. We had 12 TACCS boxes loaded with the basics of the Corps Headquarters. But we needed a huge database, which we did not have, nor did we have the capability to store a huge database. Once again the American Army NCO stood up to the challenge. The head of my SIDPERS section politely asked me to go get some coffee while they pondered the situation and came up with a proposal to solve the problem. Their solution was absolutely brilliant. They coined the phrase “Five Digit Midget” or “FDM.” The FDM was a way of changing the coding in the TACCS box to hold only five pieces of critical information on each Soldier in the Corps – Name, Rank, SSN, MOS and Unit of Assignment. These were the basic elements needed to report strength accounting, location, casualty and units. It also allowed the section to dump thousands of pieces of information currently stored in the TACCS boxes allowing much more room in the database. By linking the TACCS boxes together in tandem much like a string of Christmas tree lights, they were able to use these same TACCS boxes to upload an entire Corps strength. This required placing HR Soldiers at every incoming air and sea terminal to collect manifests as units landed and to deploy LNO teams to each hospital and aid station to collect casualty data. All of this was made possible by the DCSPER and MILPERCEN who sent us NCO fillers from Korea. Meanwhile, and largely unknown to us, the DCSPER was pulling out all the stops to buy and deploy laptop commuters to theater as quickly as possible to give us a database capability. These laptops would eventually begin arriving to our area in December 1990 to January 1991. But in the meantime, the brilliant database built by the NCOs of the 18th Personnel Group and the 18th P&A Battalion stood the tests of time.
Mail – yes, we had mail. Perhaps our biggest challenge was the U.S. Mail! Even in 1991, the Soldier still penned hand written letters and dropped them into the U.S. Mail to loved ones back in the states. There was no e-mail, no text messages, no Facebook, no Twitter and lastly few phones to call home. Perhaps even worse, stamps in 1991 were of the lick ’em, stick-em type which would quickly become a mass of glued paper in the Soldier’s sweaty pocket in Saudi Arabia. The DCSPER helped us out with that by getting Congress to pass free mail. The 18th Personnel Group did have one Postal Company, but just one Company, of 50 Soldiers, to support an entire deployed Corps! It soon became apparent that this would become the monster under the bed! It took action by all levels of leadership to mobilize people, equipment, and storage for the tons of mail that arrived everyday into the theater.
Postal personnel and unit assets alone would account for almost 35% of the Group by the time the deployment came to an end. The 18th Personnel Group quickly became the largest deployed Personnel Brigade in history since WWII. When over 1,700 replacements began filing into the Corps, through the Replacement Detachment, the 18th Personnel Group actually became the largest unit in the Corps rear detachment. We fed, housed, and supplied newly arriving troops. The Reserve component quickly became the savior to the Corps as it sent Postal Companies, fillers, Mess Teams, U.S. Postal employees and sorting equipment into the Group.
Then fate struck again. A wonderful lady named Ms. Ann Landers decided to print a series of articles in every newspaper in the country telling Americans that Soldiers, particularly women Soldiers, needed personal sanitary toiletries and to send them addressed to Any Soldier, 18th Personnel Group, Saudi Arabia! Tractor trailers began delivering TONS of boxes to be distributed to Soldiers requiring forklifts and huge storage areas just to place and sort. Thank God, it does not rain often in Saudi Arabia, as all of these packages had to sit out in the weather until distributed.
Logistics – the Group had little in the way of logistics personnel, vehicles, tentage, mess facilities, or even office basics such as tables and chairs. Thankfully, the DCSPER in conjunction with the DCSLOG and Fort Lee, started funneling supplies and logistics to the 18th Personnel Group as quickly as possible. But this required Officers to construct hand written property books and ways of tracking supplies and equipment. This challenge was with us every day until the end of the deployment and even had us setting up Arms Rooms and secure storage facilities for weapons that were funneled back to the 18th P&A Battalion Replacement Detachment from hospitals and aid stations that could not hold them while on the move. Remarkably, there were only two reports of survey needed at the end of the deployment to account for the few lost items during the entire operation.
Desert Shield and Desert Storm was the first ever overseas deployment of an entire Army Corps in less than six months, many of the units taking their own equipment and many deploying without TOE equipment requiring Reserve component depot support from across the USA. Everyday felt like you were inside a blender being spun in 100 different directions at once. But incredibly, the Officers, NCOs, and Soldiers of America made it all happen. It was an honor to serve with every one of them. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you unleash the potential and ingenuity of the American Soldier.