Logistics awards honor legacy of fleet support

Sep 28, 2004

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NAWCAD Public Affairs

The best talents in NAWCAD's logistics support field were honored here Sept. 15 in an uncommonly poignant awards ceremony that was as much about legacies as it was about future directions.

NAWCAD Commander Rear Adm. Jeff Wieringa handed out the Fourth Annual Michael G. Simodejka Awards for excellence in logistics. The namesake Simodejka was NAWCAD's first civilian logistics director, and was holding that position when he and six other NAVAIR employees were killed in an August 2000 plane crash while traveling to Pax River from NAVAIR Lakehurst (see sidebar, "Four years after, life overshadows loss").

The ceremony was attended by Simodejka's widow, Pat, his daughter, Dawn Jacobus, and a grandson he never knew, Jacobus' 20-month-old son Michael. Members of his family have traveled to Pax River to attend the awards every year since the program's inception.

"It's a day we always look forward to, a day to remember and honor Mike, and celebrate his life," Pat Simodejka told assembled guests.

The award for Outstanding Logistician of the Year went to Clark Butner, who works in NAWCAD's Special Communications Requirements Division as a lifecycle sustainment manager, for a set of gear known as the Psychological Operations Broadcast System.

Taking the Outstanding Logistics Team Award was the Pioneer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Fleet Support Team, including Allen Ballard, Mark Davis and team lead Frank Ferney.

NAWCAD logistics competency director John Altomare acknowledges that logistics is one of those terms that is more widely used than truly understood, partially because of the breadth of the concept. For the uninitiated, he explains that logistics encompasses "everything you need to keep the fleet flying."

Butner likens it to the full-service customer support provided with the leasing of a luxury car or high-end computer system - documentation, troubleshooting, service calls, training, engineering support, technology upgrades, parts and supply, to name but a few of the details to be minded for a warfighting technology. Logistics is even a part of the design and acquisition process, with support strategies being planned into a system's development.

"Without logistics support," Wieringa said, "you can have the best system in the world, but if it's not available, it's not worth having."

It's a lesson Butner would rather not see coalition forces learn the hard way. Much of the work done by the hundred-plus employees of the SCR division supports special operations activities in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Reliability can't be left to chance.

The Psychological Operations Broadcast System he supports is essentially a mobile TV station and radio station, all compacted into Humvees or shipping cases. There are also a number of complimentary systems, including the Deployable Print Production Center, which he likens to "a mobile Kinko's." Taken as a whole, they provide commanders with a way to communicate to local populations even in remote areas of Afghanistan and Iraq, where the mass communications infrastructure is gauzy at best.

To keep it all up and running for deployed forces, Butner oversaw development of a new database system called the Maintenance Action Reporting Tool. If a piece of gear breaks in the field, the trouble call goes into the system. From there, every aspect of the support team response is tracked, "from the time you say it's broke until the time you say it's fixed."

The system also allows for trend analysis, to determine what parts fail, with what frequency, under what conditions, and how long it takes a manufacturer to supply a replacement. The division uses the information to ensure needed parts are always on the shelf, as well as to identify design flaws in specific components.

Butner is one of 15 people working logistics within the SCR division, including several team members deployed in-theater to provide on-site technical support as needed. Prior to coming to Pax River, he spent four years in the Marine Corps, and carries the experience with him in his work.

"I know what it's like to be out there in the middle of the desert with no support and broken equipment," he said. "I've been a warfighter ... and I never realized that there were major civilian commands with thousands of people behind you. It's nice to know the way we support the warfighter makes a difference."

Of the Pioneer UAV Support Team, Wieringa said they have so long been a model of fleet support that they risk being taken for granted. They are also guilty of raising the bar for all followers.

"Everybody assumes every UAV is going to work as well as the Pioneer does," Wieringa said.

The team is currently providing full-spectrum support for nine aircraft serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom with the Marine Corps' VMU-1.

"I have three fleet support team members embedded to do on-site repairs and technical support directly for the Marines in combat, and they are right in on the front lines with them," said team leader Ferney. When more extensive repairs are required, the aircraft come back to Pax River, where they will receive anything up to a complete rebuild on the floor at Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Division.

"Engine repair is our main challenge right now," he added. "The nine aircraft are flying at the rate of over 400 hours per month."

Pioneers have logged more than 4,700 flight hours in combat, with the aircraft gaining world fame during Operation Desert Storm when Iraqi soldiers surrendered to one of the UAVs. The Fleet Support Team has been in place from the beginning.

"Clearly Pioneer saves lives," said Wieringa, noting that the aircraft's persistent presence over a battlefield or contested urban area often keeps friendly forces from coming to harm.

For enemy forces in Iraq, the UAV's persona is decidedly less benign.

"They've come to call the Pioneer the 'Bringer of Death,'" Ferney related, "because within minutes after they see the little airplane, some type of missile or bomb, or a C-130 gunship, takes them out."

Ferney has been supporting Pioneer since 1994, and said the job is always fresh, never boring. The team's enthusiasm for the work, he said, comes from the direct connection they feel to the Pioneer's mission and the people who carry it out. "This is truly fleet support, helping the guys in the field and knowing that we're doing something to support the warfighter. That's why we're all here."

SIDEBAR: Four years after, life overshadows loss

In a conference room full of NAWCAD’s senior military and civilian leaders, the person commanding the most attention is a one-year-old boy, who sits on his mother’s lap looking at an Eric Carle board book and popping cheerios into his mouth from a little plastic tub.

He is an honored guest, the grandson of a man that everyone in the room knew, by reputation if not in person. And when Pat Simodejka gets up and talks about her late husband, many eyes steal glances at the grandchild, and the moment threatens to turn bittersweet.

But Pat Simodejka will have none of it; she wears a beaming smile. Today, she says, is about celebrating a life, and a professional legacy. She shares her husband’s mantra, “Life is good,” and insists that no one forget it.

“Mike worked hard, he played hard, but most of all he was committed to the endeavors he undertook,” she said.

The head of logistics for NAWCAD, her husband was doing the job he loved when, on the morning of August 9, 2000, he climbed aboard the shuttle flight from NAVAIR Lakehurst and Trenton Airport down to Pax River. Six other likewise dedicated employees shared the flight: David Dahlen, Angelo “AJ” George, Cindy Kovacs, Robert Polo, John Vail and John Zukow. Two contract pilots, Daniel Groff and Joseph Mari, were in the cockpit of the Piper Navaho Chieftain.

They made it as far as Burlington, N.J. A little before eight in the morning, as the Chieftain cruised along at 2,900 feet under visual flight rules, a Piper Seminole collided with it, according to accident reports, destroying both aircraft. No one survived aboard either plane. The Seminole was crewed by Craig Robinson, a New Jersey police officer, and Jason Wismer, a student pilot from Bensalem, Pa.

It was a tragedy that left the NAVAIR community reeling. For Simodejka’s friends and family, the awards that bear his name have been an important part of moving forward. “Mike’s death was a tragedy,” said wife Pat, “but his life was a celebration. … He was a patriot, he loved his country and was always proud to serve her.”

Award recipient Butner met Mike Simodejka twice, once at a gathering of former military a few years before the crash. Simodejka had served as an Army Ranger, Butner as a Marine. Butner was a junior-grade employee just starting in logistics work, while Simodejka was in the senior executive service, Butner said. The two shared a beer, and the gregarious Simodejka was generous with his time and advice.

“For an SES to sit down for a few hours and talk at that time to a GS-7, that’s a pretty good guy in my book,” Butner said. The two men also spoke of their military service, and of their shared ideals. “He had a lot of drive, a lot of will to succeed, and he empowered the people under him to do that as well.”

“Sometimes people say that this must be a difficult day,” said Simodejka’s daughter, Dawn Jacobus. “But it’s a great day, to see how many people loved, cared for and respected my father.”

“When the accident happened,” said Pat Simodejka, “my biggest fear was that Mike would be forgotten. Now he will always be remembered and honored.”

Patuxent River, MD

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