Off Beat: Army’s current workhorses pack a lot more kick than mules

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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When Fort Vancouver archaeologist Bob Cromwell led a Vancouver Barracks tour Wednesday, it was like flipping through chapters of local history.

The tour was part of a public meeting, which, in turn, was part of the Barracks’ transition from a U.S. Army base to National Park Service property.

When tour members walked past an interesting brick structure on the west side of Fort Vancouver Way, a man asked, “What’s that building?”

“It’s a mule barn,” Cromwell said.

Contrast that with one of the workhorses (so to speak) of our current armed forces. After the U.S. Army transferred its Reserve and National Guard units to a new center near Sifton, its staff offered a tour of those facilities.

Instead of a mule barn, there was a modern motor pool facility. But there was a similar question. On that tour, the guy asking “What’s that thing?” was staring at a big piece of construction machinery in the shop for some maintenance. The answer sounded like “Hemi,” which echoes a TV commercial for a Dodge truck.

Actually, the sand-colored machine was a HMEE: High Mobility Engineer Excavator. It’s the same verbal shorthand that turned the High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle into the more familiar Humvee.

Roll those caissons

A HMEE can be driven from site to site in a war zone without a truck or trailer and is street legal in all 50 states, they said. It’s also fast enough to get you a speeding ticket which apparently happened to a National Guard soldier in another state.

According to one of the guys in the shop, the soldier was pulled over for doing 48 mph in a 40 zone. He still had room on the speedometer. Weighing in at 16 tons, the HMEE can roll the caissons along at about 60 mph.

Just to show how much has changed since the days of mules, that piece of trench-scooping military hardware was in the shop for a computer upgrade.

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.