It wasn't your average casino run. On January 10, 2009, Lamers Bus Lines made Wisconsin history by moving a total of 3,500 National Guard soldiers of the 32nd Brigade over the course of eight hours. The ultimate destination was Camp Blanding, Florida, where the soldiers were to receive training before returning to Wisconsin and, eventually, an 11-month assignment in Iraq.
The logistics were intense. It took 75 coaches, twice as many drivers and three months of planning to pull off the state's biggest-ever troop movement by motor coach, says Fred Braun, Central Wisconsin operations manager and one of the lead drivers on the trip. "The biggest thing is that you're hauling people. You want them to be as comfortable as possible."
Though Lamers was given a lot of latitude on how to accomplish the move, the National Guard had certain schedule commitments Lamers had to meet, most notably getting the soldiers to contracted dining operations in a timely manner. The soldiers were staged in 28 separate locations. Coaches were staged over a period of eight hours, and they traveled in convoys of three or four. Bunks with canvas curtains were installed in all of the coaches to make sure drivers could switch off and get some rest.
Not that getting sleep was always that easy. "It seems that with the National Guard, someone's always in charge of the John Wayne movies," jokes Braun, who says he was nevertheless able to sleep through the loud shoot-em-ups.
There were contingency plans for everything. Lamers made sure it had someone on 24-hour call just in case there were problems. One of the coaches additionally carried enough emergency parts to fill a baggage bay — just in case. Lamers, which prides itself on flexibility, also tapped some of its mechanics to drive. Fortunately, the coaches suffered no real breakdowns. But the weather posed its own challenges. "Going through southern Wisconsin and Rockford in Illinois was treacherous," says Braun. "It was blizzard conditions."
Security, of course, was another big concern. There were no send-off ceremonies, so as not to attract protesters, and drivers had to remain in constant contact. And every time a coach crossed a state line, the lead NCO aboard had to call a designated number and report the position.
None of this was all that new to Lamers, which has been moving Wisconsin troops for more than 20 years. Braun says the historic move wasn't all that different from the civilian trips Lamers runs to Florida — the difference being, they did it 74 times in one day.
The coaches reached Florida on Sunday afternoon, and the drivers all checked into a hotel for a little well-deserved rest. The return trip, which started January 30, went just as smoothly, except for some bad weather going through Paducah, Ky. "It was hair-raising. There were bad storms, with trees down all over the place. One of our drivers ran over a branch and lost a tire — knocked it off the rim."
Fortunately, Lamers mechanics were close by and took care of the problem.
Bad weather and all, Braun sounds ready to do it again. "The National Guard troops are extremely professional. Talk about courage and bravery and commitment — they personify that. They also pick up after themselves. I love hauling the military."
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