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Quiet base performs critical work

Robert Hoskin, a welder at Production Plant Barstow, Marine Depot Maintenance Command lances a pin on an LAV frame, Jan. 11, 2013. Hoskin travels across PPB performing multiple welding jobs.

When the Navy bought the land for the Marine Corps Logistics Base near Barstow in 1942, the payment included a promise to the Walter Ross family, who owned the property.

Ross, a sheep rancher, had died nine years earlier. His family stipulated in the sale that his grave must be perpetually cared for. Surrounded by a low metal fence and decorated with flowers, Ross keeps a low profile, lying just inside the main base entrance on the main road.

The base’s presence is almost as quiet.

Unlike the training at the nearby Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and the Army’s Fort Irwin, there are no live-fire drills. No bombs are being dropped on this part of the desert. No giant guns are pumping ordinance into the sand.

Nevertheless, it plays a critical role in the structure of the Marine Corps. And while some military commanders may be fretting about the security of their facilities as the Pentagon gears up for another round of base realignment and closure, officials here said they are confident Barstow will survive.

The base is a warehousing and repair complex. It takes in virtually any kind of vehicle or piece of equipment used by the Marine Corps, repairs it if necessary and then stores it until it’s shipped out to be put to work somewhere.

Lt. Col. Greg Field, 39, said if public knows anything about the base, it’s usually in relation to something else.

“Everybody says, ‘Hey, I’ve seen that place on the way to Vegas,’” he said.

Field, an 18-year veteran of the Marines, heads the fleet support division at the base. His job is to keep track of all of the mobile equipment, from Humvees to howitzers, being stored at the site.

Rows of MRAPs — mine protected ambush resistant vehicles — stretch hundreds of yards into the desert, their awkward armored frames sometimes carrying the scars of battle. The side window and part of the windshield of one have starburst cracks from where they were hit by bullets. There are small dents in the vehicle’s armor behind the driver’s door.

The vehicles’ structural integrity will be analyzed — tests can find cracks undetectable to the human eye — and repaired accordingly. Some will be completely rebuilt from the ground up.

“If they don’t rebuild them,” Field said, “they go to a foreign military sale. Or they’re used for bombing targets. Some of the vehicles have a level of armor or (classified) technology that we can’t sell.”

The base is one of only two that perform this task for the Marine Corps. The other is in Albany, Ga. The Barstow base handles everything west of the Mississippi that moves on wheels.

“It’s in all likelihood that every (Marine Corps) vehicle will spend part of its life here,” Field said.

Which makes the base a critical asset, says Lt. Col. Ken Lee, 42, the base’s executive officer.

“Our warehouses are really stuffed,” said Lee, who grew up in Grand Terrace, “but we have a lot of outdoor space that’s available. That’s what makes Barstow such a valuable asset.”

The base has 3 million square feet of covered storage. Warehouses, some dating to the base’s opening, account for many of the structures.

Outside storage areas offer another 30 million square feet. And because of the dry desert air, deterioration from rust or moisture is not much of a concern, Lee said.

The base claims the largest rail head in the military. In addition to handling Marine Corps equipment, it also is the shipping point for Army vehicles being used for training at Fort Irwin, north of Barstow. Railcars loaded with lines of tanks and Humvees often sit on the tracks that run through the base.

Karen Gray, the base strategic planner, said the influx of equipment has increased in the past year as operations in Afghanistan begin to wind down. In June 2013, she said, the base took in 29 million pounds of cargo. Last month, the total was 81 million pounds.

In February, Secretary of State Chuck Hagel called for another round of base realignment and closure, known as BRAC. Congress, at the moment, seems to have little interest in approving a BRAC any time soon, but given the military’s budget, most experts believe it’s simply a matter of time. They expect action in the next several years.

Lee said it’s important for the Marine Corps to have its equipment-handling center.

“Is Barstow going to get looked at?” he said, regarding any new BRAC. “I’m sure it will, but I think we’re pretty secure.”

Lee said logistics center and Fort Irwin are responsible for as much as 41 percent of the Barstow-area economy. The Marine Corps Logistics Base employs about 2,000 people — less than 100 of them enlisted military personnel — and generates an annual payroll of $42 million.

Chip Schwartz, 55, is head of the base’s trades division, overseeing the repair and refurbishing operations. An Air Force veteran, he’s been working at the base, with a couple of interruptions, since 1988.

“We have people with over 40 years of experience out here,” he said.

In some instances, there are three generations of family members working on site.

Part of Schwartz’s domain lies within the largest building in the Marine Corps, a 10-acre repair shop where light armored vehicles, MRAPs and amphibious assault vehicles sit stripped to their shells in individual work bays, each with its own small crane and ventilation equipment. The whine and spit of air wrenches pops up above the dull industrial roar that permeates the cavernous building. Overhead cranes occasionally trundle by. In one annex near the middle of the building is a machine shop.

Brian McKay, 48, of Apple Valley is a production supervisor who started at the base in 1997. The age of the equipment the crews work on — such as the light armored vehicles that were built in the early 1970s — makes it sometimes hard to find parts, he said. If a part is unavailable or might take to long to acquire, it is fabricated on site.

“We make all kinds of good stuff,” McKay said.

Frames are often sand blasted and repainted, both of which take place in separate structures.

“Some of them are battle damaged,” McKay said of the vehicles, “but a lot of it’s rust and deterioration.”

Near one end of the building sits a large gun. Schwarz calls it a museum piece.

“That is the howitzer that fired the first round in Desert Storm,” he said.

Once refurbished, it will be transported to the Marine Corps Museum in Triangle, Va., near Quantico.

“It will not fire,” he said.

Most equipment, however, leaves the shop ready for battle. Occasionally, the workers find out just how important their job is. In recent months, Schwartz said, an employee’s son, a Marine, was in Afghanistan and his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device.

“His dad was one of the people making sure the armor was connected,” Schwartz said. “Because everybody here did their jobs properly, everybody (in the damaged vehicle) walked away.

“When you see that the work we’ve done has saved someone’s life,” he added, “it makes an impact.”

MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE BARSTOW

Mission: To repair, store and ship equipment and materials for Marine Corps operations west of the Mississippi River

Personnel: Enlisted: 84; Civilian: 1,961

Acreage: 5,567, total from two parcels in Barstow and Yermo

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