Guiding the Troops: Operation Waypoint Puts GPS Devices into Soldiers’ Hands

August 1, 2011  - By
Image: GPS World

Operation Waypoint, a Minnesota-based, non-profit program administered by American Legion Post 621, has broadened its program from a state and regional focus to national in scope with its new website,

Run by 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 GPS device manufacturer Lowrance 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.

Close Call in Baghdad. Shortly after the soldiers arrived in Iraq, while traveling at night, their 24-vehicle convoy took a wrong into a 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.

“Our goal is to spearhead an even larger movement where communities nationwide can directly support our troops in a very meaningful way,” said Meyer. “I believe that every soldier that feels a GPS would aid them in their mission in the Middle East should have one with them.”

With the enhancement of GPS accuracy and advanced features, today’s GPS units are even better suited to the challenges often seen by the military than when the program began. Operation Waypoint provides soldiers with Lowrance Endura Safari handheld GPS units that contain a precision GPS+WAAS antenna with 42-channel receiver and 3-axis magnetic compass to ensure troops have pinpoint accuracy for proper guidance or calling in air support when needed. The combination of the touchscreen, simple menus, and the ability to control one-handed or with gloves keeps usability fast and seamless, Meyer said. However, the most important benefit is the ability to store up to 2,000 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 ensure 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 more than 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 device and mapping before he or she takes it overseas.

“Each Lowrance GPS and chart card costs $115 after corporate discounts are factored in,” said 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 soldier. 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 device to every deployed unit. The Operation Waypoint website was redesigned to build awareness, make it easier for visitors to donate, and encourage other organizations to become partners in the project to provide GPS devices for soldiers in their own communities.

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