Operation Waypoint Goes National

Published in the September 2011 Issue September 2011 News

Operation Waypoint, a Minnesota-based, non-profit program administered by the St. Augusta American Legion Women's Auxiliary Post 621, recently announced the broadening of its program from a state and regional focus to national in scope with its new website, www.gpsfortroops.org.

Fully run by dedicated volunteers, the program is committed to increasing the safety of military men and women deploying to the Middle East with the guidance of highly accurate, handheld GPS units and mapping cards for Iraq and Afghanistan. Since its inception, Operation Waypoint has relied heavily on its partnership with Lowrance, a leading GPS navigation systems brand, to provide GPS products and charts to soldiers preparing to serve, as well as generous donations from service and social organizations, and numerous individuals to fund the effort.

Operation Waypoint was started in 2005 by retired educator Ed Meyer after a former student, preparing for deployment to Iraq, contacted him to ask what type of GPS unit would be best for his mission. As the military only provides one GPS device per unit, which is usually mounted in a vehicle, Meyer contacted a friend at Lowrance, requested three GPS handheld devices, and trained the company commander and two former students how to use them. Shortly after the soldiers arrived in Iraq, while traveling at night, their 24-vehicle convoy took a wrong turn into a very dangerous Baghdad neighborhood following the lead truck's Army-issued GPS unit. Realizing the mistake, the convoy commander called Sgt. Gaylen Heacock, one of the soldiers equipped with a Lowrance GPS supplied by Meyer. Heacock's device determined the correct route and was able to guide the convoy to safety. Upon hearing of how the Lowrance units aided in safety, Meyer worked through the American Legion Auxiliary and Post 621 to broaden the idea into a full not-for-profit program.

Operation Waypoint provides soldiers with Lowrance Endura Safari handheld GPS units that contain a precision GPS+WAAS antenna with 42-channel receiver and three-axis magnetic compass to ensure troops have pinpoint accuracy for proper guidance or calling in air support when needed. The combination of the touch screen, simple menus, and the ability to control one-handed or with gloves, keeps usability fast and seamless. However, the most important benefit is the ability to store up to 2000 waypoints for areas of safe passage, suspected insurgent buildings, and other items that are marked and identified with any of 193 different icons and then shared between GPS units over time or added to satellite maps.

"The [GPS] unit helped insure the safety of crews while running convoys through the worst part of Iraq," said Sgt. Heacock. "It's helpful in pinpointing casualty evacuation points and points of hostile action."

To date, Operation Waypoint is responsible for delivering over 200 handheld devices into the hands of deploying soldiers. The St. Augusta American Legion accepts donations for Operation Waypoint and purchases its Endura Safari handheld GPS units directly from Lowrance. Lowrance also provides permission for the organization to copy and encrypt its Middle East mapping onto locally sourced microSD cards. While more work, this avoids packaging and operational overhead costs that would normally be seen by a manufacturer. Once the GPS and mapping cards are prepared, each participating soldier is personally trained on the GPS and mapping prior to his or her taking it overseas.

"Each Lowrance GPS and chart card costs $115 after corporate discounts are factored in," continued Meyer. "Unfortunately, there are still times when we can't purchase enough units. I have even given my personal GPS away, because I can't imagine turning down a brave solider. The challenge, as with most non-profits, is maintaining enough donations to support the program effectively."

Operation Waypoint seeks to grow nationally by working with other American Legion Posts and organizations with a goal to provide a GPS unit to every deployed unit. For more information on Operation Waypoint, to make a donation or learn about other ways to support the organization's work, please visit www.gpsfortroops.org or contact 320-252-6693.

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