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Active Army's only petroleum and water group brings end to storied past

September 17, 2012

By T. Anthony Bell

FORT LEE, Va. (Sept. 17, 2012) -- For those who've lived and worked at Fort Lee over the past decade or so, the images were commonplace and unmistakable:

Gaggles of Soldiers performing physical training on the parade field at the corner of Marine Drive and A Avenue.

The light blue flash that stood out on Soldiers' shoulder sleeve insignia as they flooded the PXtra just after the payday activities formation.

The tears seen and goodbyes exchanged at the Post Field House when Soldiers departed for distant lands, and the pride that brimmed and tight embraces that pervaded when they returned home.

Those scenes as it relates to 49th Quartermaster Group will come to an end Friday when the installation's only U.S. Army Forces Command unit ends a 19-year run of operations here, during an inactivation ceremony at Seay Field.

Col. Rodney Fogg, the 49th's commander, said he is filled with pride and admiration as he closes down the latest incarnation of the unit. It's a task that requires a sense of reverence and sensitivity.

"Nineteen years and my thoughts are that I need to put a lot of effort into honorably closing out the unit," he said. "That's been the driving force in my command over the last 15 months."

Fogg's top enlisted Soldier, Sgt. Maj. Jay Porter, an ordnance warrior, said being involved in the inactivation has given him a renewed appreciation for the unit.

"It's an honor and privilege," he said, "but kind of a sad day to think that all the things this organization has done for our military comes to an end. It's kind of bittersweet. There's this quote, and it says 'Don't be sad you're going away, just be happy with all you have accomplished.'"

The 49th's inactivation is part of the Army's normal cycle of restructuring organizational elements to better suit its needs. The Army is currently shifting functional unit missions to multi-functional logistical units.

The 49th QM Group, first activated in 1936 as a colored (segregated) transportation unit, is a theater-level sustainment element that provides bulk petroleum and water supply and distribution services. It is also capable of providing mortuary affairs and, until the recent deactivation of its 16th QM Company, provided field services that included laundry and shower.

In the very recent past, it was also a force provider, the moniker given to units capable of constructing a tent-and-containerized "city in a box" that could sustain more than 500 troops.

The 49th's diverse array of mission capabilities has made it a valuable asset. During the last decade, elements of the 49th have seen numerous deployments in support of military and humanitarian operations.

Though it has been frequently called upon to perform real-world missions as of late, there was a time when the unit carried less significance and struggled with its identity, said retired Command Sgt. Maj. Elijah Ross. He served as the unit's first command sergeant major and said the 49th was formed from the 240th QM Battalion, a 23rd QM Brigade asset at the time that primarily functioned as a "detail" unit for its higher headquarters.

"Ninety percent of the taskings the 23rd brigade received were passed on to the 240th," he recalled.

That perception carried over to the 49th when it was activated as the active Army's only petroleum and water group in 1993, said Ross.

"It was tough to change the mindset of local commanders that we were not here to pull all of Fort Lee's details but to train and deploy when needed," Ross said.

From a military doctrine standpoint, the marriage of the 49th and Fort Lee might be considered an odd match, a FORSCOM unit at a Training and Doctrine Command post, but it wasn't unusual for the Army back then. One could argue that the unit would have been better off at a division where it could fully employ its combat service support assets. It would not have made much of a difference because the 49th was a theater-level asset, said Ross.

Throughout the remainder of the decade, the 49th went about solidifying its purpose, training at Fort Pickett,Va., and Fort A.P. Hill, Va., and participating in exercises such as Bright Star in Egypt. The unit eventually cultivated a level of expertise for which it was meant. Jose Hernandez, director, Petroleum and Water Department, Quartermaster School, had two stints with the unit. He said the 49th had grown to become the Army's mecca for petroleum and water by the end of the decade.

"The 49th was the nucleus for liquid logistics planning," said Hernandez. "They were the '1-800-POL,' the people you called if you were a war-fighter and you had a question about theater logistics, especially liquid logistics."

Hernandez said the unit participated in joint logistics over the shore planning, which involved the process of buying the fuel, transporting it via Navy vessels, bringing it to shore using the Inland Petroleum Distribution System and distributing it to the end-users.

The 49th was capable of constructing up to 90 miles of pipeline in conjunction with a tactical petroleum terminal and distribute it using a 300,000-gallon capacity Fuel System Supply Point.

All of the 49th's capabilities would be put to the test during contingency operations in Somalia (Operation Restore Hope) and Bosnia (Operation Joint Endeavor). The 49th provided significant mortuary affairs support at the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack there and went on to send thousands of Soldiers to Southwest Asia over the next decade to support the war effort. The operations tempo during the last few years has been especially high.

"We've repeatedly sent organizations and units into Operations Iraqi Freedom, New Dawn and Enduring Freedom," said Fogg. "In fact, during the last five years we have deployed 27 units into those operations."

Furthermore, the Group's 54th and 111th QM companies, the only mortuary affairs components in the active Army, deployed to Haiti to provide services in the wake of a massive earthquake in 2010.

The 54th and 111th will survive the 49th's inactivation and continue to serve under the soon-to-be deactivated 530th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, an element added to the 49th in 2006.

The last petroleum distribution element remaining from the old 49th, the 108th QM Co., will be deactivated sometime within the next year, said Lt. Col. Donald Weyler, the 49th's executive officer.

Hernandez, expressing concern for the gap that could emerge when the 49th is gone, said although the Army is moving to disperse the petroleum distribution mission among various units, the base of knowledge and proficiency that the 49th once possessed will be difficult to replace.

"There are some experts out there," he said, "but it's not a one-stop shop where you have all of your top people in a given location."

For Command Sgt. Maj. James Sims, QM Corps regimental CSM, and formerly the 49th's top enlisted Soldier, the inactivation is more personal. He said he is forever connected to the hundreds of warriors he met as a member of the unit.

"Being a part of that team of great leaders and Soldiers and watching it grow and develop into an exceptional unit over the years is a bittersweet moment for me," he said. Sims was the 49th's command sergeant major from 2009-11 and sent off hundreds of Soldiers to deployments in Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. He remembers the send-offs vividly.

"What sticks with me the most is looking in the eyes of a warrior and knowing they are prepared to execute any mission," he said, "just being prepared to do what the Army called them to do, to give it their all in defense of the United States."

Soldiers assigned to the 49th's headquarters element will be absorbed into the remaining units. Many will transfer to other installations in the coming months.

After the inactivation, the remaining units will fall under the 82nd Sustainment Brigade, headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C. A ceremony acknowledging the change in higher headquarters will take place after the inactivation ceremony.

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