BATTLE CREEK, Mich. –
Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a wandering polar bear while just going about your workday.
No? That’s alright. Tough to imagine many hands going up on that one.
One of the few hands in the Defense Logistics Agency that would definitely be raised belongs to Environmental Protection Specialist Cliff Williams. The former Navy aviation ordnanceman and almost 10-year agency vet performs a unique annual chore for DLA that takes him within a thousand miles of the North Pole, the land of glaciers, icebergs and … mosquitoes?
“They’re like, frozen during the winter and then they wake up in the summer,” Williams said. “It’s crazy.”
From his DLA Disposition Services site in Norfolk, Williams catches a military flight for a journey to Thule Air Base in Greenland each summer once the ice breaks up enough for a contracted Military Sealift Command heavy supply ship to reach the U.S. military’s northernmost installation. That vessel serves dual purposes for what the Defense Department has called “Operation Pacer Goose” since it began in 1952. Williams’ colleagues at DLA Distribution load the ship with all the stuff the base says it needs. Once the ship has been emptied at Thule, Williams collects a year’s worth of hazardous waste, scrap and any usable but unwanted property to return it to the states for transfer, donation or disposal.
Williams said the amount and type of stuff the base turns in changes from year to year. This year, he said the mission recovered about 70,000 pounds of hazardous material, 46 pallets of used tires and 5,000 pounds of electronic scrap. Some years it’s vehicles and medical equipment. He said that while base needs constantly change – along with the size of the base itself and its surrounding, otherworldly landscape – Pacer Goose is consistently his most unique mission.
“You have to connect with so many different people. To even physically get there is a task in itself,” Williams said. The Danish villagers in Greenland are allowed on base, and he said the vast majority of support jobs at Thule are filled by Danes – including the de facto disposal yard run by a Danish company that stockpiles the items DLA will ultimately dispose of. “There’s different rules and regulations there, you’re linking up with different services, conducting hazardous disposal and disposition services representative work, you’re working closely with [Military Sealift Command] and DLA Distribution – you’re wearing a bunch of different hats at times.”
For his first five years of involvement, Williams was the only agency employee who physically traveled to Thule for Pacer Goose. The past two years, he was joined by a DLA Distribution rep, but repeated trips there alone as the face of the agency have forced him to gain familiarity with the full scope of DLA capabilities and services and work to link warfighters with the parts of the organization that can help them.
“You arrive, and people are asking you all kinds of questions about who they can get in touch with on this issue or that,” he said. “They don’t know that there’s different parts of the agency, they just think ‘You’re all DLA, right?’”
The week Williams was there at the end of July just happened to coincide with the most dramatic Greenland ice sheet melt event in the past 70 years, according to the Wall Street Journal. On August 1st alone, scientists said 12.5 billion tons of ice was lost to the ocean from surface melt, more than any other single day since 1950. For all the relative southerners in the U.S., it’s hard to imagine what that would look like. But Williams has an idea.
“Every year, it looks different because of the shifting ice cover,” he said. He also said the desolation, quiet and perpetual daylight that bathes the base in the summer add to its uniqueness. “Years ago, they buried used equipment. You’re starting to see some of that stuff popping up now. It’s not like any other base I’ve been to.”
With Pacer Goose nearing 70 years of success in resupplying the far-flung base, and Williams’ good working relationship with the various players, odds are that he’ll continue to bear witness to the evolution of this one-of-a-kind outpost.