Checking out (3): There and back again, or slaying the Supply monster

In a recent post I introduced you to that most excellent and important document: the checkout sheet.  It is a roadmap that leads to life after the service, but you can’t follow it out the gate until every signature is inked in the appropriate spot.  The ease with which you get those spots filled varies widely, however.  Some are easy, and some are hard, and some are downright painful. Let’s start there first.

In theory completing your checkout sheet should be pretty simple.  As I have said before the checkout process goes on pretty much every day at every base and in every service, so you would think that it would be a smooth and streamlined process.  For some signatures it is, but for others, well, not so much.  Today we’ll take a look at the most difficult stamp to obtain: the one you receive from the supply warehouse after turning in all of your field gear.

For those who don’t know the way that Marines are equipped to train and fight is with a comprehensive set of personal equipment that ranges from a “lightweight” (ha!) kevlar helmet to protect your noggin to steel reinforced combat boots to protect your feet.  You have body armor reminiscent of a turtle’s shell that is festooned with pouches to hold everything from a notebook and a pen to hand grenades and ammunition magazines for your rifle.  You get a sleeping bag to keep you toasty when it is cold outside and a poncho to keep you dry when it rains.  Need a jacket?  You get one.  Gloves?  Here you go.  Cup for your coffee?  You even get one of those.  All told you receive several thousand dollars worth of personal equipment that you will to use when you train and fight, and for the record it is hands down the best equipment that Marines have ever been issued.  It is a lot of gear.  So much gear, in fact, that by the time you make it through the line you are staggering beneath such a mountain of green, brown, and black accouterments of war that even the mighty titan Atlas would shudder at the heap that you shoulder on the way out of the warehouse.

And when you are done with it the Marine Corps wants it back.

Therein lies the rub.  In the typically complex way of the Marine Corps you aren’t actually issued all of the stuff you need at one time or from one place.  You receive your basic equipment from a centralize warehouse that issues and recovers the personal stuff that I just wrote about- the items that every Marine needs.  That equipment is enough for training and is a good baseline for the fight, but when you deploy it isn’t sufficient.  Iraq, for example, tends to be about a billion degrees in the summer and parts of Afghanistan approach arctic temperatures in the winter.  In order to equip Marines for the conditions they will live in while deployed to fight they are issued supplemental equipment, but they don’t get it from the central supply warehouse.

That would be too easy.

Instead, each deploying unit is issued a set of specialized combat equipment tailored to where they are going.  For my most recent vacation getaway to Afghanistan we were issued cold weather gear too keep us warm in that distant and frigid land.  Lots and lots of it.  Three full jacket and pants ensembles of varying types (one for rain, one for warmth, one in a fetching white and grey camouflage pattern to make us look like a lumpy snowbank should we need to hide ourselves in the tundra), lined and waterproof boots (comfy AND toasty!), cold weather socks, long underwear, fleece undershirts, gloves, mittens, and my personal favorite- booties to keep our toes snug when we weren’t mucking about the countryside in our boots.  By the time we got all of the cold weather gear we were ready for an arctic expedition- all we needed were a few dogsleds, a case or two of Spam, and some snow under our feet.  And just like our fighting equipment it is all top notch stuff; not leftovers from the Korean war, which is nice (I say that because many years ago when I was conducting cold weather training we were issued musty old Korean war vintage canvas “cold weather” protective clothing that was anything but.)  At any rate, this pile of gear added to your other pile of previously issued gear becomes a mountain of equipment that even our friend Atlas could not independently shoulder.

But we’re not done yet!

You now have your fighting equipment and your environmental clothing, but you need to be issued the tools of the trade- your rifle, pistol (if you rate one), and all of the other bits and pieces that make you into a warfighting machine.  Your weapons shoot bullets, and those bullets are loaded into magazines.  Ten magazines for your rifle.  Three for your pistol.  You need Night Vision Goggles to peer into the darkness, and a bracket to mount those goggles to your helmet.  Along with a dozen other items, you pick these things up at your unit armory and add them to the growing Everest like mountain of gear that you need to fight.

Enough, you think?  Well, not yet!

You still have to draw your unit specific equipment.  Every unit has a different mission to accomplish, and as a result each unit has some unique equipment required to do so.  My last unit was a fire support and liaison outfit, so we needed special radio headsets, helmets, night vision equipment, thermal targeting sights, ruggedized computers, and other nifty items to ply our trade in combat.

Now you’re finally done!  All you need is a flag to plant on top of your equipment mountain and your Edmund Hillary impression will be complete.

So off you go….training, deploying, fighting, coming home, and doing it over and over again.  Time passes, and soon enough it is time to start turning all of that stuff back in.  The problem is that it all looks the same- some of it is brown, some green, some black- and all of it needs to go back where it came from.  Were I more organized that would be no big deal, because I would have been smart enough to take the itemized receipts that the various supply clerks handed and file them away for the day that I would be turning the stuff back in.  Well, I’m neither that smart nor that organized.  Without a thought of the ramifications down the road I took the receipts from the supply clerks and jammed them into my pockets, where they were either laundered into oblivion or thrown out with the gum wrappers and lint that always seems to aggregate there.

So there I stood, eager to divest myself of the mounds of gear that clogs my garage, but unable to really remember where it all came from.  I give it my best shot, and soon enough I have a backpack and a couple of seabags stuffed with all of the equipment I seem to remember receiving at the main supply warehouse.  After grunting and straining to get into the car, I zorch over to the Centralized Issue Facility (CIF- another acronym!) where I unload my car and again grunt and strain to get it all over to the checkout counter.

Standing at the entrance to the warehouse is reminiscent of Frodo’s trip into Mount Doom, complete with the unsettling feeling in the pit of your stomach that you are stepping into the great unknown with uncertain outcome.  Entering the dark maw of the musty hangar-like building, I saw that it was going to be no quick and easy adventure.  Lamentably, between the counter and myself stretches a long line that serpentines back and forth.  And back.  And forth.  Apparently,  I am not the only one interested in returning my gear today!  I search the faces of those in front of me and see the blank and resigned expression that every Marine knows- the “it’s gonna be a while” look.

Capitulating to the timeless fate of Marines immemorial, I lug my stuff up and join the line.  Slowly, inexorably, like a caterpillar the line moves through the twisting lane.  A Marine is called to the counter, so he or she reaches down, seizes the straps, loops, and handles and drags the agglomeration up to the counter.  The Marine’s departure from the front of the line starts a sine wave of stooping Marines, each grabbing their gear and lunging forward, with the fleeting feeling of progress supplanted by return to resignation as they wait.  Painful minutes stretch into infinity, and moments before my last hair turns grey it is my turn.  Finally!

Up to the counter I struggle with my jumble of earthtoned equipment.  The clerk, a civilian contractor, asks for my ID card and we get down to business.  As I have said before, this is not my first rodeo, so I made many of the basic preparations that get Marines into trouble at the supply counter.  I had cleaned my equipment (nothing dirty is accepted- it is issued to you clean and you are expected to return it that way) and disassembled it by removing the camoflage cover from my helmet, taking all of the pouches off of my protective vest, and separating the components of my sleeping bag.  I tried to keep it organized, with all of the pouches in one pile and clothing in another.  So off we went.  “Helmet, Medium,” said she, and after she inspected the one I handed her to ensure that it was indeed a medium helmet she moved on to “Cover, Helmet, Medium….”

Dozens of items later my pile had shrunk, but oddly had not completely disappeared.  It was smaller to be sure, but still there.  Reduced from mountain to foothill, my equipment load had lessened.  Fortunately, we weren’t done.  “Flashlight, Tactical.”  Unfortunately, my tactical flashlight was absent!  I rooted through what was left to no avail.  “Um, I don’t have it,” said I, hoping for a pass.  No such luck!  “You can come back when you find it.  Jacket, Combat, Desert?”  After much fishing through the pile I came up empty handed.  My forlorn look was met by her steely gaze and flat reminder that I could bring my errant jacket in with my missing flashlight.  I asked about the other stuff, and her steely stare softened.  “You didn’t get it here,” said she, “and we don’t want it.”  D’oh!

Off I went with a bag of stuff I thought I needed to turn in and a homework assignment to find the stuff I forgot.  All things considered, though, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.  I seemed to remember putting the flashlight in the pocket of my jacket, but where the jacket was currently hiding was anybody’s guess.  As for the other stuff, well, I had a few other stops to make and I am pretty sure that one of the many clerks who had issued it to me would recognize and reclaim it.  All I had to do was make the circuit from the CIF to the armory to my unit supply a few more times and before too long my pile would be gone and the magical stamps would appear on my checkout sheet.

Two trips and a found jacket and flashlight later, my checkout sheet was emblazoned with the stamps of success from the CIF, the armory, and my unit supply.  I had bested the supply monster and scribed its mark onto my checkout sheet.  Things were looking up!

__________

Lessons Learned:

1.  Keep the receipts!  You would think I would have learned that ages ago, but I didn’t.  I even tried to keep a folder each time I showed up at a new unit to organize all of the pertinent paperwork including receipts for equipment.  Needless to say,  I failed in the attempt.  So, if you are checking in somewhere soon, save your receipts.

2.  Do a little research before getting in line.  Had I made a few phone calls or emails I could have found the list of gear that I was expected to turn into the CIF.  The same goes for the armory and your unit supply.  It will also save your back from the strain of lugging extra gear all the way through the line and then back to your car because you brought it to the wrong place.

3.  Make sure your equipment is clean and complete.  There are a lot of little straps and widgets that can get lost, and you will be buying replacements and cursing up a storm unless you have everything squared away.  A few minutes with a scrub brush will save hours of waiting in line.

4.  Allocate a lot of time for the process.  You will forget or lose something and will be making more than one trip to the turn in counter. In addition, there will be a lot of people like you in line ahead of you.  It is not a speedy process.  Be forewarned…

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