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Feature Stories

NEWS | Dec. 30, 2016

Fuel to fight: Inspector general and fuelers have special mission in ISIS fight

By Sgt. Brandon Hubbard U.S. Army Central

Through a borrowed forward operating base office phone in central Iraq, Lt. Col. Helen King asks two Soldiers to raise their right hands. 

She tells the men to be the eyes, ears, voice and conscience of the Army. 

“We inspect what we expect,” King, the 1st Theater Sustainment Command-Operational Command Post Inspector General, tells Master Sgt. Jose Torres and Sgt. Jose Irizarry, of the 969th Quartermaster Company – who are now sworn in as temporary Inspectors General. 

The petroleum laboratory specialists have been traveling across Iraq to make sure the fuel farms supplying the operations – like trucks, generators and aviation elements – have the juice to keep the fuel moving. Now, the Puerto Rican-based Army Reserve Soldiers, will serve as experts to help 1st TSC-OCP Deputy Command Inspector General Maj. William Rozar, inspect the entire operation for the command to make sure that millions of dollars of fuel are being stored and accounted for properly.

It is a unique mission.

A handful of Soldiers at U.S. Army Central forward logistics elements are responsible for running a small army of contractors across the area of operations in Southwest Asia and the Middle East. The job requires travel and trust in the people on the ground to complete the mission. 

Petroleum specialists have a critical role in operations, but they say the job can sometimes be far more involved than people imagine. “A lot of people think they know what fuelers do,” Irizarry said. “They have no idea.” Thousands of high-performing gallons of Jet Propellant 8 are downloaded from trucks and planes into massive collapsible fabric fuel tanks, which sometimes hold more than 200,000 gallons at a time. Irizarry, who is serving his second tour as a petroleum specialist, says filling the bags is a careful process – the JP8 fuel is less dense than the water in a human body making it nearly impossible to swim to safety.

“If the tank is overfilled, it can burst and become lethal,” he said. The “bladders” are like giant water balloons on the ground. While they can be deployed in almost any tactical condition, knowing exactly how much fuel is on-hand at any given time can vary depending on the desert heat expanding the fuel, uneven terrain and the method of measurement. A missed measurement can mean thousands of dollars in error, or worse: a shortage.

“The 1st TSC-OCP provides the logistics to the theater and the fuel accountability is huge,” Rozar said, while conducting his own measurements at a fuel farm in central Iraq. “If we find a discrepancy about how the fuel is being reported – say a fuel farm is reporting more fuel than there really is and a mission comes up, it could potentially have a huge impact on the 1st TSC’s mission.”

In a three-man team, the IG’s have spent most of September traveling to the remote fuel farms to make sure operations are being conducted in accordance with the logistical requirements for U.S. Central Command. This process is managed through Sub-area Petroleum Offices responsible for ensuring daily fuel stockage, consumption, and delivery schedules are met according to set command policies.Each SAPO is responsible for multiple operational locations that help provide a direct conduit to the Joint Petroleum Office at the CENTCOM headquarters for monitoring fuel accountability in theater.

In the field, the inspectors meet Soldiers like Sgt. Keith Berg, a petroleum specialist from the 960th Quartermaster Battalion based in Sioux City, Iowa, working at a forward operating base in western Iraq. Berg, who resides in South Dakota, has worked as the contracting officer representative to oversee fuel operations at the base since July. When he first deployed, he planned to be working a typical daytime mission filling generators and trucks. But, his time has been anything but typical.

Berg found himself going out on the flight line at night in blackout conditions with U.S. Marines, downloading fuel from large cargo planes nicknamed “bladder birds” for the thousands of gallons of petroleum onboard.  

“We were driving with no lights whatsoever, only night vision goggles, going through the control points – dodging all the cinder blocks – following a white van or truck, waiting that bird to come down and then downloading about 8,000 gallons of fuel,” he said. 

Soldiers, he said, never realize how critical the fuel mission can be to operations.

“Most of the time, if any airplane or helicopter goes down, what is the first thing they are going to inspect? They are going to want to know how good the fuel was,” Berg said. “Was the fuel pure and was it tested correctly? Was it circulated correctly? Where did it come from?”

Those important questions are the exact reason U.S. Army Central-attached inspector generals are assigned to travel to the remote fuel farms across places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This is the fun part of being an IG,” Rozar said, the morning after flying through the night to get to another small forward operating base for an inspection. He says most people think of the IG office as being called in to investigate waste, fraud and abuse, or general wrongdoing. But, often the job is about looking for systematic problems before they become serious.

“We do our best not to interrupt operations,” Rozar said. “I’m not here to fix something, I’m here to see if things we have previously identified have been corrected.” 

Swearing in veteran fuelers to assist in writing the inspection report gives the office experts to help make sound recommendations. “We swear them in for their expertise. I might be inspecting something that I have absolutely no idea or background in,” Rozar said. “I can do research, but I’m never going to have knowledge that these guys have from working in a specialty for 10 or 15 years.”