RICHMOND, Va. – When more than 2,400 Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen traveled to Washington, D.C., in January 2021, to assist civilian law enforcement with security operations before and after the 59th Presidential Inauguration, the large-scale, short-notice mission in the middle of a pandemic required a transportation plan unique to all involved.
“As soon as I saw what was happening, I knew there would be a quick response of forces into D.C.,” said Jeffrey Billmyer, chief of the Virginia Army National Guard Transportation Management Branch. “This felt very much like a Hurricane Katrina event right away. I definitely had the feeling this would be an extended mission.”
“Typically there are large-scale mobilizations executed with months of planning, or there are smaller-sized mobilizations executed rapidly,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Will Johnson, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team brigade mobility officer. “To be part of a situation that demanded both simultaneously was to witness heroic efforts on the part of all involved.”
In fact, to coordinate the movement of Soldiers to Washington, D.C., and back was one mission and then to transport them around D.C., was another one.
According to Billmyer, the Virginia Guard was fortunate to have long-lasting relationships with transportation partners in the civilian industry.
“We used seven motorcoach companies across the commonwealth and one from North Carolina to make this response happen,” he said. “In most cases the owners or CEOs were on the phone with us at all hours doing direct coordination. It was a total team effort between the military and our contracted companies and we could not have done it without them.”
The Transportation Management Branch was responsible for moving the Soldiers from their home station readiness centers to Fort Pickett, Fort Pickett to D.C., D.C. back to Fort Pickett, and finally from Fort Pickett back home. They were also responsible for “convoy clearance approvals, route clearance coordination, oversize/overweight permit processing through the Virginia Department of Transportation, hazardous material certifications, General Services Administration Fleet Management, contracting and leasing operations, and back-end billing and funds management.”
In total, the Transportation Management Branch executed 164 bus moves and utilized 20 short-term rentals, 20 GSA vehicle assets, and one box truck.
“This was all done while following CDC guidelines and COVID-19 protocols for spacing during travel,” explained Billmyer.
The most important aspect of this was the execution of the Reception, Staging, Onward Integration process at Fort Pickett, according to Billmyer.
“The 329th Regional Support Group team did great work and worked directly with the G4 to make all of these moves happen,” he said. “The communication between the 116th BCT forward, the G4 team in the middle, and the 329th at the RSOI point was exceptional.”
“From a strategic standpoint this was a fantastic way to execute our internal processes against the backdrop of a large-scale contingency operation,” Billmyer added. “This was our first real opportunity to exercise what we call our Installation Deployment Support Plan using Fort Pickett as the jump off location.”
Once they left Fort Pickett and arrived in Washington, D.C., the 116th IBCT, serving as the lead element of Task Force Virginia, was responsible for the Soldiers’ transportation needs. While Task Force Virginia originally had only 30 buses to accomplish their mission in D.C., once more troops from other states fell under the 116th’s command, requirements grew considerably.
“After being assigned responsibility for Soldiers from 24 additional states, we went from supporting about 2,400 Virginia Soldiers’ movement requirements to 9,000 total Soldiers,” Johnson explained. “Each state had about a battalion-sized element so there were effectively 30 individual customers submitting move requests throughout each 24-hour period.”
The 30 commercial buses from one company were soon augmented by more than 100 buses from several other commercial companies.
The buses were tasked with transporting Soldiers to and from their hotels, the U.S. Capitol and the D.C. Armory. But they also provided other support to the mission, including taking Soldiers to receive medical treatment, delivering food to hotels where Soldiers were staying, and even taking them to laundromats where they could wash their clothes.
The total numbers between Jan. 11 to Feb. 6, 2021, included moving 85,896 total passengers on 1,463 bus missions. They averaged 54 buses and 3,1818 passengers per day.
As the mission in D.C. continued, its changing nature presented new challenges. For example, access to the perimeter around the U.S. Capitol changed throughout the mission. A pickup location one day could be inaccessible the next day due to increased security measures.
“As a result, we had to field phone calls at all hours from units on the Capitol grounds looking for their bus, or drivers unable to reach their passengers,” Johnson said. “With 30 states or entities and 9,000 Soldiers supported, the frequency of calls at times was overwhelming. Even though there were sometimes delays, we didn’t leave anyone hanging.”
Another challenge was the requirement for COVID-19 mitigation and spacing throughout the mission. For example, buses were only permitted to be filled to half capacity.
“There were some circumstances were commanders made a decision to add more people to a bus if the situation was critical and demanded it, but all planning was made using the COVID-19 mitigation calculations,” Johnson explained.
However, the most significant difficulty was the short time frame required for almost all transportation planning.
“It’s not hyperbole to say that from our arrival until the conclusion of the inauguration, the security conditions demanded changes to operations almost hourly,” Johnson said. “Any attempt at establishing a routine or setting procedures for how we would conduct business was challenged by the need to be flexible and adopt new procedures constantly.”
“But this is what I think the Army does well as a whole- we are conditioned to accept new realities as rapidly as they present themselves and then adapt just as rapidly so that our actions meet the needs of the moment.”
Although the commercial bus movement was Johnson’s primary focus, the brigade S4 section supported every commodity of supply. This included food distribution, hotel room management, equipment issue and ammunition.
“Master Sgt. Dan Taylor, the 116th IBCT S4 NCOIC, was responsible and successful at getting dozens of van and box truck rentals for our supported units which made a huge impact by giving our units the ability to self-sustain,” he explained. “Filling the demand for forms of transportation smaller than a bus was one of the most critical steps to reducing small-passenger bus movement requests and giving units the ability to deliver food and supplies to their soldiers. There was nothing involving sustainment that Master Sgt. Taylor didn’t have a positive effect on in the success of the D.C. mission for Virginia.
“From Maj. Eddie Bailey and Master Sgt. Taylor not sleeping for 72 hours straight, to 1st Lt. Autumn Schuler working the night shift for bus transportation at the height of the mission, there was, across the board, a lack of sleep and a combined dedication to making this mission successful by everyone involved,” Johnson explained.
However it wasn’t just the brigade staff that Johnson cited for their dedication. The commercial bus companies also went above and beyond to support the mission.
“They hired additional dispatch staff to support the unconventional volume of movement requests and mission changes and, just like our BCT staff, they too shared in the sleepless nights.”
Billmyer also expressed appreciation for the exceptional work of the transportation personnel assembled for the mission.
“Chief Warrant Officer 2 William Johnson and his team in D.C., Sgt. 1st Class Nicole Arbogast and her group at the 329th RSG, and my team in the G4- Cristina Aranzamendez, Staff Sgt. Curtis Baker, Staff Sgt. Roger Jackson, and Sgt. Eddie Ocana,” he said. “All of these individuals worked incredibly long days and nights and their work was detailed and excellent. Their efforts are a testament to their dedication to the organization and the mission.”