Va. Shipyard Workers On a Lifesaving Mission

By Stephen Barr


Sunday, May 8, 2005; C02

 In normal times, the civil service employees at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard repair aircraft carriers, submarines and other ships. But these are not normal times.

Navy welders, electricians, boilermakers and steelworkers from the shipyard are "up-armoring" Army trucks at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait -- wrapping soldiers in heavy metal to protect them as they drive ammunition and supplies through Iraq.

In answering the call to serve in Kuwait, the Navy civilians from Portsmouth, Va., also serve as a dramatic reminder of how federal employees can cast aside bureaucratic red tape and adapt their skills to save lives.

"From a personal standpoint -- I have 28 years of government service -- I've never done anything that I felt was so personally rewarding," said Fredric Madeira , who served as a project superintendent in Kuwait.

Jim Shoemaker , a production manager at the shipyard, called the transition from ships to trucks "kind of a natural fit for us. . . . We had a lot of people with relatives over there and were in the mode: 'What can we do to help?' "

The shipyard's first foray into Kuwait began in January, with the deployment of 13 employees. After they received training and help set up operations, a second wave of 37 mechanics went over in February. Since then, employees have rotated in and out. Current Army plans call for keeping Navy hands in Kuwait through Sept. 28.

All are volunteers. At the start, the shipyard had 200 employees volunteer for overseas duty but stopped taking names when it became clear that the Kuwait repair station needed only 50 or so workers in its opening phase, Shoemaker said.

The employees first got word that they might be called for overseas duty late last year. Unrelenting insurgent attacks in Iraq were taking a toll on U.S. troops. Enemy forces were exploding their homemade bombs under Humvees and trucks, killing and maiming soldiers and Marines. Troops were scrambling to outfit their vehicles with what they called "hillbilly armor," and Pentagon officials were accused of inept war planning.

In testimony Thursday, military leaders told the House Armed Services Committee that they have stepped up production of armor for U.S. troops. Manufacturers are producing a steady stream of trucks with factory-installed armor, and most of the trucks in the field are being retrofitted with add-on armor, the military leaders said.

In Kuwait, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard employees have been installing "cab kits" that provide extra armor on old, and some new, trucks headed for Iraq.

Madeira said the first Navy volunteers landed in Kuwait two weeks after the Army decided to set up an add-on armor operation. "None of us really had a very good knowledge of the country, except that several of us looked at the Internet and got as smart as we could," he said.

Once in country, the volunteers quickly assessed what they needed for their metalwork. They ordered equipment, such as small cranes, forklifts with long blades and specialized tools to improve efficiency.

They opened shop in what Madeira called a "gigantic carport" and figured out that 20 Army trucks could be squeezed into 10 repair bays.

On average, Madeira said, the team could complete work on 10 trucks in 24 hours. The shipyard employees work day and night shifts, with employees in motion almost all the time.

Most of the volunteers are in their mid-forties, and despite the busy pace, most of the injuries have been minor, such as bruised hands and pinched fingers. Coping with the heat -- the temperature has reached 112 degrees -- is a major challenge, but the Army has provided weather tips and instructions on how many bottles of water to drink each day.

Working under a sunshade, the shipyard employees remove a truck cab that lacks armor and weighs about 1,500 pounds and install a new, armored cab that weighs about 4,000 pounds. The truck also gets heavy-duty shocks, armor around the gasoline tank and an air-conditioning unit for the cab.

One night, seven trucks, loaded with ammunition, showed up for a rush outfitting. The Navy employees had been told to expect three. But they refitted the trucks in 23 hours, and "when the last few trucks pulled out," Madeira said, "there were soldiers and mechanics with tears in their eyes. . . . The young soldiers who picked the trucks up were in awe of what they had and what they got."

He added: "The mechanics were starting to realize the significant impact they have in saving lives."