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Military makes presence felt in San Joaquin County

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Posted: Sunday, December 22, 2002 10:00 pm

The United States is at war - which means every person in every corner of America is affected. And San Joaquin County is no exception.

Not only are hundreds of local citizens serving in military reserve and active duty units, there is a definite military presence in the form of a south county supply depot, a California National Guard armory in Lodi, and a California National Guard air base at the Stockton Metropolitan Airport.

They each play an integral part in America's war efforts.

Col. Edward Visker, commander of the Defense Distribution Center San Joaquin, headquartered near Tracy, said even though his 1,650 civilian employees aren't working in the war's front lines, they're performing a significant duty.

"It's important that they get supplies to the right place at the right time," said Visker, who is a member of the U.S. Army. "They need to know what they do is important."

San Joaquin County's military presence

Defense Distribution Center of San Joaquin

1. Location/address: There are two locations: Chrisman Road in Tracy; and the Sharpe Depot in Lathrop.

2. Personnel make-up: 1,650 civilian, seven military.

3. Established: The Tracy site first entered the military supply system in 1942 as a sub-depot of the California Quartermaster Depot in Oakland. It played a vital role during World War II by supplying items to troops overseas.

Sharpe has existed since at least 1941 (when it was known as Lathrop Army Depot). This former military airfield was located on the grounds of the Sharpe Army Depot. The airfield's date of construction is unknown.

4. Headquarters: New Cumberland, Pa.

5. Size: 488 acres at the Tracy site; 725 acres at the Lathrop site.

California National Guard Armory, Lodi

1. Location/address: 333 N. Washington St., Lodi

2. Personnel makeup: Four active duty members; 55 guardsmen make up Alpha battery, 1st of the 143rd, field artillery.

3. Established: During the Great Depression. The armory was also used as a gathering station for Japanese-American citizens en route to internment camps in 1942.

4. Headquarters: Walnut Creek.

5. Size: Less than one acre.

California National Guard Armory, Stockton Metropolitan Airport

1. Location/address: 8010 S. Airport Way, Stockton

2. Personnel: Four active duty members. 515 guardsman from three different units:

- The Third of the 140th Aviation Regiment has 300 guardsmen.

- The 118th Maintenance Company is home to 200 members. And Detachment One, Company B, 340th has 15 members.

3. Established: Early 1950s.

4. Headquarters: Fairfield (140th), Benecia (118th), Richmond (340th)

5. Size: Occupies seven acres of airport land.


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In Lodi, Alpha Battery of the 1st Battalion of the 143rd Field Artillery Group "drills" monthly out of the six-decade-old Lodi National Guard Armory.

"Even though we're not in the front line, we all play a role," said Sgt. Javier Machado, a recruiter for the California National Guard in Lodi.

"They are always ready for duty," Machado said of the battery's personnel.

The 55-member unit trains with howitzer artillery pieces with the aim to "suppress the enemy from afar" before ground troops advance on the battlefield, Machado said. The howitzer is large enough to be carried on a trailer, shooting 100-pound rounds of ammunition.

The battery's personnel mostly train in Lodi with four weekends a year spent at the California National Guard's Camp Roberts, near San Luis Obispo.

"They go down there to qualify, or shoot the howitzer and always train as if we are at war," Machado said. "You don't want to train for anything less than what you would expect if you went to war."

The guardsmen are always on alert for recall by the president, regardless of the situation, Machado said.

"They have to be ready to roll, with all their gear, in two hours."

When members go on vacation, they are required to report to the company's commanding officer with a vacation itinerary and contact numbers, Machado said. And it's common for a reservist - in any branch - to be called up and expected to abruptly leave a vacation site to reconvene with a military unit.

With the war on terrorism heating up, planning a big vacation to faraway places might not be in a unit members' best interest, Machado said.

Machado is one of four active duty Guard members on duty at the armory on Lodi's Eastside. He recruits potential members from throughout northern San Joaquin County - and not just for the local field artillery unit, but for Guard units throughout California.

The other three active duty members handle all the tasks that come with housing a local Cal Guard unit, such as stocking supplies, issuing pay, planning training operations, and in general keeping neat files on each member.

The Guard also rents space out of the Stockton Metropolitan Airport. Three units, comprised of 515 part-time soldiers, convene in the central county once a month to prepare for war-like conditions.

• The 3rd of the 140th Aviation Regiment trains with Chinook helicopters which serve as troop and cargo carriers. During peacetime, the 300-member unit and its 15 Chinooks assist in firefighting missions throughout the state.

• The 118th Maintenance Company is the pit crew of the military. Its unique mission is to fix or rebuild vehicle engines in the field, whether it's a Humvee, Jeep or truck.

• Detachment 1, Company B, 340th Forward Support Battalion ships and receives engine parts for various vehicles. The 15-member unit also has a two-missile (heavy anti-armor weapon system) repairman on its staff.

In Tracy, the Defense Distribution Center, San Joaquin delivers supplies to every military base from west of the Mississippi to the Pacific Rim.

"If they wear it, eat it, or fight with it, chances are that we provide it," said Doug Imberi, spokesman for the center.

That means troops who are deployed in such far-flung fields as Afghanistan or Kuwait are eating meals that were sorted, packaged and shipped from the San Joaquin County base. And the very socks that warm their feet, or the straps that holds a gun to a shoulder were most likely gathered and distributed through the center.

The center is considered a mega-depot moving about 25,000 orders per day through 25 mechanized warehouses that make Costco seem small in comparison. It is one of 22 depots managed by the Defense Logistics Agency, a branch of the Department of Defense with headquarters in New Cumberland, Pa.

Susquehanna, Pa., houses the other mega-depot and serves the East Coast military bases and the European Theater.

A coterie of trucks is a common scene on the otherwise nondescript landscape that is the Defense Distribution Center. Train tracks are scattered throughout the property, but they are decommissioned and only a reminder of earlier times when the railroad was the way to move freight.

The property is so large that some of the personnel get around by golf carts. A 480,000-square-foot warehouse is under construction and will be finished in April 2004. It will replace 12 World War II-era warehouses. The new warehouse will include 8,000 square feet of office space, a lunchroom, and other employee-related amenities.

The operation at Tracy works like this: The clients (military bases such as Pearl Harbor, Hawaii) order supplies from San Joaquin. Those orders are, in turn, fulfilled by the center ordering supplies from vendors such as a boot maker, or a food processor that sells dehydrated orange juice, and just about any other manufacturer imaginable.

The orders are brought in by FedEx or UPS, then entered into a computer database, sorted by bulk or small items category and stored until needed. Forklift operators and a labyrinth of conveyer belts keep the large operation organized and in constant flux.

Many of the continental U.S. bases that are located west of the Mississippi River have dedicated trucks that arrive every day at the Tracy site to take on shipments. Each truck is packed daily and then shipped out at night for next day delivery at the base, Imberi said.

Overseas clients, on the other hand, receive goods by ship or special air pallets. But their shipments are processed overnight as well, and usually arrive within three days of the order.

Regardless of the client's location, the center makes an effort to consolidate each shipment, meaning that if Pearl Harbor orders jackets, steel rods and a kitchen sink, all items will be shipped at the same time, not parsed by category.

The 900-acre Sharpe Army Depot in Lathrop, off of Interstate 5, is part of the Tracy operation, not a separate entity, Imberi said.

"We're a single operation with 14 miles between us," Imberi said.

The two sites, both originally built during World War II, were consolidated in recent years by the Defense Department, Imberi said.

The consolidation of the two depots was the first such action by the Pentagon in its attempt to streamline the shipping process to forces in the United States and abroad.

The Tracy site has become the main depot, while the Sharpe property with 100 employees and six warehouses, is used for storing and shipping slow-moving items.

Imberi said he's not sure if the San Joaquin County community understands what goes on behind the barbed wire fence, or if most people even realize the two depots have merged.

"A lot of people still call it an Army depot," Imberi said. "We serve all branches."

Machado said people in Lodi are regularly surprised when they see him in his military uniform.

"You don't see too many soldiers running around the city," Machado joked. "They don't know that there is an armory around here."

But he enjoys the recognition and he relishes in telling people about the military goings-on in San Joaquin County.

Like a true recruiter, Machado said: "If people knew we had a unit here maybe they would become more interested in joining."


Comments about this story? Send mail to the News-Sentinel newsroom.

SUBSCRIBE TO THE LODI NEWS-SENTINEL

To subscribe to the Lodi News-Sentinel, fill out our online form or call our Subscriber Services Department at (209) 333-1400.

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