Mapmakers on Fort Bragg keep troops on the right path

By Drew Brooks, military editor, The Fayetteville Observer

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As hurricanes Irma and Maria tore across parts of the United States last year, thousands of troops from several military installations prepared for humanitarian relief missions to clear roads, restore power and provide food and clean water.

At the same time, a small team of Defense Logistics Agency civilians at Fort Bragg were working to ensure those deploying troops knew where they were going and where to go once they got there.

The DLA Mapping Center at Fort Bragg has been open for a little more than a year, officials said, but it’s already one of the busiest facilities of its kind in the country.

Of the 10,000 printed maps produced over a 48-hour span to help troops responding to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Florida, the majority were printed at Fort Bragg, officials said. Others were printed in Richmond, Virginia, where the DLA Aviation’s mapping division is based.

In a short time, officials said, the Fort Bragg center – one of six DLA mapping print facilities in the world – has been established as a model for future mapping facilities.

Sam Hamilton Jr., who leads the Fort Bragg Mapping Center, said the civilians who work there have to be quick, agile and efficient to keep pace with the demands of Fort Bragg, which is home to many of the military’s first responders – conventional and special operations forces that could be called to deploy anywhere in the world on short notice.

If that call to deploy comes, Hamilton said, the mapping center is one of the first stops during preparation.

The center keeps some printed maps on hand, he said. But its real power comes in its ability to quickly print any number of maps detailing anywhere in the world.

“If we don’t have it here, we have the capabilities to get it,” Hamilton said.

Kevin Bettis, chief of DLA Aviation’s Mapping Division in Richmond, said the Fort Bragg center was unique because of its setup and mission requirements.

“We’re conscious of the time sensitivity in deployments,” he said. “We have the ability to operate on a moment’s notice here.″

Before the Fort Bragg location opened, local troops often had to request support from other mapping centers. Sometimes, that would require soldiers to drive to Richmond to pick up maps with limited time before possible deployments.

Now, the Fort Bragg center is part of a network of mapping locations that includes the Richmond headquarters for DLA Aviation and facilities in Norfolk, Virginia; San Diego, California; Hawaii and Germany. Bettis said many of those facilities are spread across numerous buildings.

At Fort Bragg, the mapping center is a one-stop shop of sorts, located in the U.S. Army Forces Command Intelligence Readiness and Operations Center.

The FIROC was dedicated in 2015, built to replace a geospatial readiness center that was destroyed by a tornado in April 2011. It houses several units from the conventional Army, special operations and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

“This facility is a hybrid of how we’ve operated in the past,” Bettis said. “We have all of the geospatial services in one location. We have storage, distribution and printing.”

The Fort Bragg facility includes 10,000 square feet of acclimatized storage, but Bettis said advances in printing technology means that space will surely never be filled.

“We’re designed to hold two million maps,” he said. “There’s nowhere near two million maps.”

Instead of finished products, the storage space is now largely dedicated to paper and ink.

Bettis said those two resources are the only limiting factors on the facility, which can produce nearly 1,000 maps an hour, depending on size.

Maps might seem like an antiquated tool in the day of GPS and computers, Bettis said. But he said nothing else can beat the durability.

“A laptop with a hole in it is a paperweight,” he said. “But a map with a hole in it is a map with a hole in it.”

The Fort Bragg center is the second-largest production site, behind Richmond, officials said.

The military has been in the mapping business for almost all of its history, officials said.

“Typically, you can get a map just like you get beans and bullets,” Bettis said.

But there has nearly always been limits.

In the past, Bettis said, a map provided to troops could be as new as 20 minutes or as old as 20 years. Today, each mapping center can draw from a virtual library that is constantly updated by the NGA and other sources. In some cases, the center can provide real-time geographic information.

“We want to make sure the warfighter has the most up-to-date information possible,” Bettis said. “And while there’s certain parts of the world that never change, at least the map won’t be on a 20-year-old piece of paper.”

Bettis said the military’s mapping operations have advanced with technology, but they’ve also changed in response to missions.

After Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, Bettis said, he was hit with requests for maps of the state to help troops deploying for humanitarian and disaster response.

“But we didn’t have any maps of Louisiana,” he said.

Instead, the DLA had maps of overseas locations and military installations.

That has changed in recent years through a partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, which has provided the military with maps of the entire U.S.

The more recent hurricanes were the first big test of the DLA’s ability to produce maps of the U.S. on demand, Bettis said. And he applauded the efforts.

“Now, when first responders or troops deploying for disaster relief ask for a map, we have available products to give them,” he said.

Ahead of the latest humanitarian relief missions, Hamilton said he prepared the same way he prepares for many other missions involving Fort Bragg troops – he watched and read the news.

“You pay attention to it,” Hamilton said.

He said it’s not unusual for him to see a report on a potential problem area in the world, only to have soldiers arrive and ask for detailed maps of that area soon after.

Hamilton said officials were tracking the hurricanes making their way to the United States, but they couldn’t predict the scope of destruction on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

“We were prepared,” he said. “We just didn’t realize the magnitude.”

The maps printed at Fort Bragg helped deploying forces from across the military figure out what roads were passable and how to get to hard hit parts of the islands.

The center can provide several types of maps with varying degrees of detail. Part of the job entails working with units to determine what information they need on a map.

“We were working overtime,” Hamilton said of preparing those maps. “They can’t provide support if they don’t know what they’re supporting.”

Hamilton said his job at the Fort Bragg mapping center is the most satisfying he’s ever had, even though it can be quite busy at times.

“Our motto is ‘We don’t say no,’ ” he said. “And we’re always on call.”