DLA personnel join counterparts to help save lives of civilians fleeing war, atrocities in Middle East

By John R. Bell

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Defense Logistics Agency personnel recently helped save numerous civilian lives by delivering millions of critical non-food items to refugees and migrants in the Middle East before the arrival of winter, in collaboration with other federal agencies.

Personnel from several DLA joint organizations worked with counterparts from the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, other agencies and offices of the Defense Department and 10 different nongovernmental organizations to procure and deliver more than 3 million survival items to people fleeing Iraq and Syria — a multiethnic diaspora scattered among 10 locations in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Although civilians began to flee Iraq just after the 2003 U.S. invasion and from Syria since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the numbers escaping both countries rose sharply in 2013 and 2014, as millions sought to escape increasing violence — including atrocities committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. More than 6 million have fled Syria alone since 2011 — roughly double the number of refugees who fled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s and ‘80s.

The ongoing exodus has brought an influx of desperate people to nearby nations and to Europe as well. These refugees and internally displaced persons usually leave their homes without many needed belongings.

Money Matters

DLA’s contribution began in August 2015, when the State Department asked DoD to use funds that would expire soon — funds already designated for humanitarian assistance — to support these particular operations. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy coordinated both requests through U.S. Central Command, whose ground commanders knew they could rely on DLA to make it happen.

However, two pressing time limits added to the already steep challenge of supplying so many items:

First, DoD’s budgetary authority for the funds, from the Overseas Humanitarian and Disaster and Civic Aid program, was to expire September 30, 2015. This meant that for the funds to have the most impact, DLA personnel had to put as much of the $150 million as possible under contract by that date, to buy more than 3 million items — a scant six weeks after the initial formal request for aid to Iraqi migrants was signed and only two weeks from the signing of the request authorizing the aid to Syrian refugees.

Not only was this an extremely tight timeframe for a very high-visibility endeavor, noted Dennis Carr, supervisory budget analyst in DLA Finance; this mission came at the single busiest time of the year for everyone in the world of finance — the very end of the fiscal year.

If that weren’t enough, Carr said, “OHDACA funding is very specific about what you can and can’t use the money for. … DLA is usually in the business of ‘If we can make it work, we’ll make it work,’ but guidance from the secretary of defense is pretty black-and-white.”

In addition to that SECDEF guidance on the overall mission and permitted activities, DLA financial managers had to follow separate guidance from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency on what specific expenditures were permitted. The takeaway for DLA Finance, Carr said, was that “in the heat of the moment, with short-term requirements, you have to make sure you understand exactly what it is they want.” His team also made sure to achieve a high level of transparency, by preparing weekly reports with monetary figures down to the penny. “We had good products that showed what we were doing and why.”

His team was one of several DLA offices that contributed, he noted. “I’m really proud of the effort of the whole team,” Carr said. “It was a lot of long hours, a lot of weekend phone calls, in addition to normal end-of-[fiscal]-year responsibilities. But everyone pulled together and got it done.”

Orders of Magnitude

Delivering such large orders of so many critical items in such a short period required monumental hard work and expertise from DLA Acquisition, Troop Support, Logistics Operations, Finance, DLA Central and Strategic Plans and Policy, noted David Kless, DLA’s national account manager for international and federal programs. To acquire and distribute so many items “was like Costco on steroids,” Kless said.

However, many longtime DLA vendors simply did not have the capacity to produce so many items so quickly, said Kless. So DLA Troop Support had to find new vendors across the world, ensure they could meet the requirement and work with the vendors and the DoD and DLA offices of general counsel to develop contracts. Ultimately, agency logisticians enrolled vendors from 11 nations across Asia and Europe, as well as the United States.

Several vendors didn’t come through with producing their items. Normally DLA would void the contract in such cases, but the urgency of saving lives meant that the agency went to greater lengths to help the NGOs get the items, said Navy Cdr. Vince Erno, who helped spearhead the DLA Logistics Operations Center’s management of the entire process. For example, with hygiene and dignity kits that arrived with damaged items, DLA worked closely with the vendors to find a solution. In the end, the damaged kits were replaced.

It Ain’t Over Till It’s All Over There

An even more pressing deadline was to actually deliver the critical items before the arrival of cold winter nights in the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa, said Kless. With this in mind, the secretary of defense stipulated that the multi-agency team should aim to deliver all humanitarian aid before Nov. 30, 2015 — so that people needing blankets, generators, kerosene heaters and children’s clothing would have them in time for winter.

These deadlines presented DLA additional unique and massive challenges. First, the agency needed to contract, procure, store, and deliver millions of items much more quickly than normal.

“We had to kind of build the plane as we were flying it,” Erno said. “We went to extraordinary measures” to complete that mission … The JLOC coordinated the efforts of all the parties involved, arranging frequent briefings and even set up a “red cell” to test for weaknesses once a plan was in place. In addition, DLA worked with partners at U.S. Transportation Command to keep overhead and transport costs low, Erno said.

The agency faced delays when some vendors balked at port fees and import taxes that were unexpectedly high; vendors must front these costs and later be reimbursed by DLA. Another challenge arose when some nations’ customs offices refused shipments of prescription drugs because the expiration dates were not at least a year away. In addition, some locations were so dangerous that DLA had no deployed personnel nearby and had to rely on the State Department refugee coordinator and NGO personnel to coordinate local delivery of goods and confirm receipt.

The State Department normally delivers humanitarian assistance through non-governmental organizations, noted DLA Foreign Policy Advisor Dolores Brown, a senior Foreign Service officer who advises the DLA director on foreign policy matters. However, “the paradigm shifted considerably in this instance, as DLA was responsible for coordinating the acquisition, transportation, and delivery of the goods to NGOs in the region,” she said.

Unique Problems, Creative Solutions

Confirming receipt for so many items in multiple locations latter required special creativity, Erno noted. Because DLA did not have personnel at every location to verify the complete order had been received and that the items were in good condition, DLA developed a virtual receipt process. This meant having someone take photographs to be uploaded for review by JLOC. “This had never been used before,” Erno noted. “We had to get creative to abide by the letter of the law while getting the material receipted.” (For more details on this novel approach, see this story from DLA Distribution.)

Perhaps the most unusual problem was posed by buckets. DLA vendors provided plastic buckets NGOs had requested for various purposes, most commonly the transport of water. The buckets were blue. Although green is the sacred color of Islam, blue has been widely used in the decoration of mosques. Given that many refugees and IDPs in the region are Muslims, this meant the blue buckets had to be replaced with buckets of another color.

In addition, DLA had to ensure it did not leave a “military footprint” in any of the locations. “In this part of the world, if people are seen receiving aid from the United States, and especially from the U.S. military, that could put their safety and their lives in jeopardy,” said Marc Gage, DLA’s liaison to the Department of State and USAID. This meant that no items could display any emblems or printing indicating a U.S. government source.

Finally, DLA’s assistance in Iraq required the agency to distribute the items within the country, using an intermediate staging base in Kuwait. For items provided to refugees fleeing Syria, DLA was able to engage TRANSCOM, using staging bases in Turkey and Jordan. For both operations, DLA needed to ensure the items arrived in a steady stream, rather than a single massive delivery that would overwhelm the NGOs responsible for distributing the goods.

“The carefully crafted distribution plan, using intermediary staging bases in Kuwait, Jordan and Turkey, to store and repackage the materiel, significantly increased our capability to deliver these valuable goods from vendor to the customer,” said Ed Fisher, chief of the Command Control Center at DLA Distribution.

Completing the Mission

Ultimately, by overcoming numerous and unique logistical problems — and by working closely with its interagency and NGO partners — DLA and TRANSCOM provided almost all the cold-weather goods and 72 percent of all the items before Nov. 30 and have been delivering the remainder through the winter. DLA expects to complete distribution of all items by the end of February.

The delivery of this humanitarian assistance was a significant example of interagency collaboration, noted Brown/. “It underscores the effort the U.S. government is putting into addressing the largest global refugee crisis since World War II,” she said.

“I saw the incredible effort of DLA and DoD staff writ large to respond ... and State and USAID’s commitment to work with DLA to get a very complex job done,” Brown added. “State and DLA worked hand-in-hand to resolve the many issues that arose in the course of this effort, from prodding vendors to deliver in record time to customs challenges.

I am very proud of what we collectively accomplished.”