Munitions Airmen complete largest shipment in more than a decade

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Sarah Johnson
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
A small team of Airmen from the 501st Combat Support Wing’s 420th Munitions Squadron completed preparations for the squadron’s largest munitions retrograde out-shipment in 15 years Aug. 31.

A retrograde shipment, comprised of a munitions unit preparing ammunition to ship to a designated location and then receiving and processing replacement ammunition for storage, is designed to maintain contingency capabilities by keeping stockpiles updated and ready when needed.

“Planning was the biggest part (of this operation),” said Staff Sgt. Joses Carpenter, 420th MUNS production supervisor. “We have to use every minute and every day counts… if we mess up that slows everything down, and we don’t have time to slow down.”

As the second largest munitions storage facility in U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa’s 19 million-square mile area of responsibility, RAF Welford is trusted by nearly 30 NATO Alliance member nations to deliver components on time to forward operating locations and maintain a ready stockpile. While its primary mission is supporting rotational bombing efforts out of RAF Fairford, the squadron’s munitions are used to support various operations across the globe.

“As a munitions depot, we don’t just deliver munitions to (one location),” said Senior Master Sgt. Susan Varmuza, 420th MUNS superintendent. “We deliver wherever USAFE tells us... they are relying on everything in our stockpile to be able to support multiple theatres, for multiple objectives, for multiple missions.”

Within the last year, the squadron has ensured deliveries of munitions to four different AORs, including U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command. Though each shipment is a major operation, the size of this particular retrograde took months of coordination to ensure the assets were safe, packed, and ready to ship.

The ammunition had to first pass a shipping inspection to ensure the correct assets were getting shipped in the correct packaging and met international sanitary standards. These inspections come in addition to periodic inspections on the entire stockpile to ensure maintenance.
“We make sure everything is serviceable so when we ship components needed for a bomb, it’s ready to be dropped,” said Staff Sgt. John Mendoza, 420th MUNS senior munitions inspector.

During the inspections, massive amounts of wood were being cut and built into special pallets by the squadron’s production team. Depending on the type of asset being shipped, a plan is created for the sizes and amounts of wood needed to support them in their shipping containers.
Ensuring all wood is heat treated is another responsibility, said Carpenter.

Meanwhile, the containers used to ship the ammunition are being cleaned and prepared to load.

“We had to relocate the assets into the storage area (and) clean out the insides of (the containers) to be cleared for customs,” said Staff Sgt. Jessica Zamarripa, 420th MUNS stockpile supervisor. “There can’t be any dirt, dust or insects – it has to be spotless. Then, we pressure washed the assets for the same customs inspections (and) pressure washed the outsides (of the containers).”

Finally, the assets are shipped to the location they are needed – and the team gears up for the next job.

“They go into a (shipping) container, or on an aircraft, and don’t come back,” said Varmuza. “It reminds me why we’re here and what we’re doing. That’s what keeps me driving back into work.”

Though most of the time the squadron does not know where the munitions they prepared ended up – or what mission they were pivotal to completing – seeing glimpses of the end result gives the entire community a sense of pride.

“It gives us a lot of pride that seeing that the end product is something we started at the beginning,” said Mendoza. “They finish it for us, but we started it.”

The unique demands of the job, often remote operating locations and small size of the career field gives the munitions community a sense of camaraderie. It is where they get their motto, “Silent Strength”: They have a huge impact, but a quiet impact, said Carpenter.

“I have been proud to be ammo my whole career,” said Varmuza. “Whether (an asset) is coming from us, or whether it’s coming from one of our brothers or sisters, it’s still ammo. If one person doesn’t do his job, potentially that asset wouldn’t have made it to that aircraft.”