The Port of Rijeka and Tuzla Airfield

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Obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.
Michael Jordan

Not one, but two massive leadership and team challenges
Moving is stressful. A new study found that 60 percent of people cite moving as the most stressful life event – and that’s when moving just involves some packing boxes and a moving van. Now consider moving an entire port from one country to another. Don’t stop there. Next, consider moving an entire airport!  Those were the two massive challenges we faced and this is the story of how through inspired leadership, sheer hard work, and tight teamwork we successfully overcame both.

Challenge #1 Move an entire port

Challenging the past – the way that’s always been done
The first challenge was presented just as the 1st Armored Division was preparing to depart Bosnia following a yearlong deployment. One afternoon, our Commander, General Ellis called Brigadier General Eaton, our Assistant Division Commander, our logistician and me into his office.  He had a question. He wanted to know why the military always used the European ports of Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Bremerhaven in Germany to bring in equipment for troops that were serving in Bosnia – especially since Rotterdam was 1676 km or 1,041 miles from Bosnia and Bremerhaven was almost as far at 1643 km or 1,020 miles. We pointed out that this was the way equipment had been brought in for fifty years. And that for fifty years these two ports were highly successful. They just worked.

Cost-benefit analysis
General Ellis then threw another question at us. He asked whether it was more expensive to bring equipment into these ports and then load everything onto trains or ground transportation or both to deliver all this equipment to Tuzla, Bosnia where it was needed. We confirmed that using those distant ports was expensive. And then we asked, “But what was the alternative?” That turned out to be the key question that started a chain of events that would do the seemingly impossible –move a port.

General Ellis said that he had the answer to that question. He claimed that there was an alternative to the ports in the Netherlands and in Germany. He pointed out that there was a port just 215 miles away – almost a thousand miles closer. It was the Croatian port of  Rijeka. 

A bold move from a visionary leader
This was a bold move from a visionary leader. But even so, the first step was to do some reconnaissance. We needed to see what we were dealing with – the possibilities as well as the impossibilities. The four of us jumped on a Blackhawk Helicopter and flew to the Port of Rijeka.  The flight seemed to take forever.  After we landed my assignment was to take a look not only at the port itself but the railroad tracks – the infrastructure that served it and to report my findings to General Ellis.  Our logistician was tasked with reviewing the warehouse facilities adjacent to the port.  We went to work.

After a few hours, General Ellis asked for our thoughts.  I expressed concern that the port looked almost abandoned. There were very few workers on site. One issue was whether the port had the staffing required. And while I agreed that one of the great advantages of the Adriatic Sea Port of Rijeka, was that it was much closer to Tuzla, Bosnia – almost a thousand miles closer than the Dutch and German ports, I also expressed concern that there were significant issues arising out of the logistical challenges to make this port and its infrastructure work the way we needed it to work. Our logistician made similar observations and expressed similar concerns.  We jumped back on the Blackhawk for another long flight back to Bosnia.

A surprising and powerful lesson in leadership
After landing in Bosnia we thought that was the end it. That the Tuzla Harbor issue would be dropped. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only did we get a totally unexpected but powerful lesson in leadership but we were thrown right into one of the largest and most innovative changes in military procedure in fifty years.

General Ellis told us to join him in a Video Teleconference with General Eric K. Shinseki, the NATO Stabilization Force Commander, who at the time, was based in Sarajevo.  General Ellis began the conference by saying that he had just returned from the Port of Rijeka and his logistician and his engineer (that was me) had convinced him that it was possible to bring the 1st Cavalry Division into the port of Rijeka rather than Bremerhaven which would not only save considerable money and time but would also help rebuild the economy of Croatia.  I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. And glancing over at our logistician, it seemed that neither could he. But General Shinseki was delighted and approved the decision to move to the new port right on the spot. 

If it’s not ‘impossible’ it just might be ‘possible’
After the video teleconference, I asked General Ellis how had  I convince him that it was possible to use the port of Rijeka. I remember apprising him of the possibilities and also of the many, as yet to be determined, challenges.  I never remembered saying that it was possible. But General Ellis responded with, “True, but you did not say it was impossible.”  I started to list some of those challenges in the hopes that the General would reconsider his decision. I told him we hadn’t checked the trains to see if our equipment could be transported to our base in Bosnia. I pointed out that the tunnels might be too low and too tight to accommodate the 1st Cavalry Division’s tanks and other equipment. I explained that we hadn’t even checked yet whether the bridges could handle the capacity. General Ellis’ response?  He simply said, “Okay, then you should go and check the tunnels and the bridges.” 

And so we did. Again, we flew there and back to see if we could deliver the Port of Rijeka as the alternative that would change half a century of military preference.

We came back, but sadly not with the good news General Ellis was expecting to hear from his experts. On our return, I had to tell General Ellis that “his” plan to use the Port of Rijeka would not work.  It was impossible. 

How ‘out of the box’ leadership solves problems
True to form General Ellis asked why. I was ready with my list of problems: first, the bridges could not handle the weight of the M1A1 Tanks we needed to transport; second, the tunnels were too small to accommodate our equipment.  I thought that these two problems alone would end the discussion of moving to the Port of Rijeka. But once again, I had underestimated General Ellis’ vision and determination. And once again, General Ellis provided an innovative solution to the problems that had just been outlined for him. His solution? He decided that only the equipment that could be accommodated by the Croatian trains and tunnels would be shipped from the port. The heavier equipment like our M1A1 Abrams Tanks and our M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting vehicles would remain  behind in Bosnia when we left to be used by the next incoming deployment.

This was the first time that the Army deployed would ship their equipment into an immature port.

General Ellis’s idea of deploying into ports like Rijeka and leaving equipment behind would serve the Army well in the years to come, would illustrate his skill as a visionary leader, and would echo the advice once offered by Robert A. Heinlein, an American writer, aeronautical engineer and retired Naval officer who said,  “Always listen to experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done, and why. Then do it.”

Leadership – Challenges – Innovation – Solutions

Robert A. Heinlein, an American writer, aeronautical engineer and retired Naval officer who said,  “Always listen to experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done, and why. Then do it.”

Challenge #2 Build a new airport in 90 days

Tuzla Airfield

The leader who questions everything
General Ellis was a leader who questioned everything for the benefit of both his men and the military. He would have approved of Winston Churchill’s advice: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” And so it was that he challenged us with another seemingly impossible change, that pushed us to the limits of our ability and stamina but showed us what amazing feats we were capable of if we worked as team.

Winston Churchill
“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

It was not long after the final decision on using the Port of Rijeka as the port of embarkation for the 1st Cavalry Division, that General Ellis and I met once again – this time to discuss the Tuzla, Bosnia Airfield.  As always, General Ellis started with a question. He wanted to know why the First Cavalry Division was flying into airports in Frankfurt, Germany or Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina and not into Tuzla which was much closer.  I recall explaining to General Ellis that Frankfurt and Sarajevo were both strategic airfields and Tuzla was not. 

The key leadership question – ‘What would it take to make it happen?’
Then he fired off another question. He asked what it would take to level up the Tuzla airfield into a strategic airport. Convinced that he didn’t yet grasp the scope of what he was asking for I fell back on a powerful analogy. “General Ellis,” I said,  “you’ve served in Washington, DC.  You know that Washington has two major airports, Dulles and Reagan.  When the large 747 planes fly in, they must land on a strategic airfield with 10,500 feet of runway to accommodate them. Dulles is a strategic airfield and that’s why all 747s fly into Dulles. Reagan is not a strategic airfield, so the 747 planes cannot and do not land at that airport. Here, at Tuzla, we have the equivalent of Reagan Airport, not Dulles. The First Cavalry Division cannot fly from Ft. Hood with its massive transports and equipment and land at Tuzla.”

Unfazed, General Ellis looked at me, and without a bit of hesitation, said, “I want Dulles. I want Dulles here at Tuzla.”  

The ‘I want it’ leadership stance
I couldn’t believe what I had heard. I rolled out an impressive array of reasons why he could not have Dulles at Tuzla and would have to settle for Reagan. To reinforce my argument I pulled out a map of the airfield and pointed to the end of the runway.  The map clearly showed a solid line of trees at the end of the runway, and beyond the trees, homes, and beyond the homes, a railroad track. The first challenge was that all of these would have to be removed. And then once the removal was complete, we would face the challenge of actually constructing a massive 10,500-foot runway that would support our transport and inbound equipment. And finally, the third and most difficult challenge was the challenge of time. I explained that it was currently August, and we were leaving Bosnia in October – in just a little over two months. We wouldn’t be here to finish the construction. “General Ellis, it’s just not possible,” I asserted, confident that the arguments I had so skillfully marshaled would convince him to abandon his idea.

But I was wrong. General Ellis put his hand on my shoulder and told me that he had confidence in me, and asked me to tell him exactly what I need in order to build him Dulles airfield in Tuzla.

The impediment option
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
Marcus Aurelius

I obeyed. I went back to my office, called the head engineer in Germany, and told him our plans for airfield construction in Tuzla.  He said this was crazy. He said I had to convince General Ellis that this was a bad idea.  I assured him that I had tried but I couldn’t budge General Ellis a single centimeter from his idea.

When the only option is to overcome the challenge and make it happen
So, with no other options open to me I went into execution mode and was trying to figure out how to make this crazy idea happen.

First, I started to search for skilled help. We had some air force leaders in Tuzla and I asked them if they knew of anyone with experience in airfield construction. They told me about an airman named MSG Patrick Daize in Ramstein, Germany.  The next day, I flew to Ramstein Airbase and found MSG Daize. 

“MSG Daize, I understand that you know a lot above constructing airfields,”  I said.

Patrick replied, “Yes Sir, I’ve built seven of them.”

I said, “OK, I need you to go with me.” 

He looked puzzled and asked, “Go with you where, exactly?”

“To Bosnia,” I told him.  “I need help building “Dulles” airfield.”

 Without hesitating he announced, “I’m in.”

After a quick check with his boss, Patrick and I were in a plane off to Tuzla.  During the flight, I asked what the worst that that could go wrong with the airfield construction.  Patrick explained that quite a lot could go wrong. There were a lot of moving parts and any one of them could undo the project. The first thing we need to make sure of, Patrick pointed out was that we got the asphalt mix right and in order to do that we needed an asphalt quarry expert.  I called the Corps of Engineers and asked that they send me the best person they had in asphalt mix and gravel quarry work. Before I knew it our asphalt expert quickly deployed into Tuzla. 

The next two months were grueling. We worked day and night, seven days a week, 24-7, non-stop.

Alexander the Great
“There is nothing impossible to him who will try”

Then, in early October, I sat in a chair next to General Ellis, General Byrne (the incoming 1st Cavalry Division Commander) and General Shinseki on the tarmac as the first 747 with troops flying directly from Ft. Hood, Texas landed at Tuzla, Bosnia.  Our “Dulles” had been built!

General Ellis had a vision of what was possible.  And while to many of us his visions seemed out of reach – impossible, he showed us that we could achieve the impossible. It takes leaders like General Ellis and General Shinseki to provide the leadership, inspiration, and resources to those who must execute and deliver on these seemingly impossible missions.  When there are challenges, and it looks like all is lost – and we had plenty of those – there are still ways to win. 

The notion of doing something no one has ever done before is not something that most leaders around General Ellis would have thought of or recommended.  The life of a leader can be a lonely place until one forms a team of believers. Although it took some time, General Ellis made me a believer. I believed in him. And then he believed in me.  I was able to build a team of my own which in turn exceeded all expectations.

For a leader, it is important to keep pressing beyond any hurdles or speed bumps.  It is important to build the right team and to ensure true experts are on the team.  It is important to believe in the team and to provide the resources. This is what turns impossibility into success.

In both the Port of Rijeka and the new airfield in Tuzla, Bosnia, we faced what seemed to be mission impossible.  But as Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”, General Ellis brought those inspiring words to life for us.

“Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish. “
John Quincy Adams

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