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News | Dec. 26, 2016

America’s Helping Hand

By John Bell


A Rapid Deployment Team from the Defense Logistics Agency’s Global Readiness Force and personnel from across the agency deployed to Haiti last fall to provide a range of services, supplies, expertise and infrastructure as the agency assisted in disaster relief following Hurricane Matthew.

The RDT, part of DLA Logistics Operations, worked with DLA Aviation, DLA Energy, DLA Troop Support, DLA Distribution and DLA Information Operations to improve the infrastructure in Haiti and speed the delivery of food, water and supplies to people displaced from their homes — as well as fuel and construction materials to relief groups. The combined group was known as Joint Task Force Matthew.

The RDT started work on the ground in Haiti 48 hours after the agency was formally asked to help in the relief effort. Four DLA personnel initially deployed to the area, folowed by three others a few days later.

Stone by Stone

It all started with gravel, recalled Craig Hill, an expeditionary contracting officer in DLA’s Joint Contingency Acquisition Support Office.

At the international airport in Port-au-Prince, a small flight line separate from the commercial runways had managed to serve the airport’s usually light air traffic. But after Hurricane Matthew, the massive increase in flights from the relief effort put stress on the small facility as helicopters delivered emergency food and equipment to relief camps and nongovernmental organizations on the western tip of the country, where Matthew hit hardest.

As the air traffic increased and overwhelmed the airfield, congestion at the airport caused the rotor of one helicopter to strike a light pole, grounding the aircraft, said Navy Capt. Paul Haslam, commander of the RDT for JTF Matthew.

A group of helicopter maintainers approached the RDT with a request for gravel to expand the existing airfield. Haslam and Hill realized the project was something the RDT was perfectly suited to help with.

They enlisted the help of the U.S. Naval Construction Forces — the Seabees — to design the new helocopter pads, with input from the Air Force airfield manager, the safety officer, the helicopter maintainers, and the pilots.

After the pads were designed and approved, the RDT recruited DLA Troop Support’s Construction & Equipment supply chain in Philadelphia and its Maintenance, Repair and Operations contractor to build the landing and takeoff pads. Troop Support also helped supply special pallets that would roll more easily onto the cargo helicopters, thanks to smooth plywood bottoms.

A contracting officer could just purchase the support directly using normal deployment contracting tools. But in this case, Hill was already familiar with the Troop Support MRO contract — which offers better auditability and value.

“As a contracting officer, I bought almost nothing,” Hill said. “Instead, my work was to first reach back to and team with the contracting officers at Troop Support — they were utterly magnificent — and I provided on-the-ground oversight of contractors.”

Ultimately, the expeditionary team built the new helicopter pads, from design to completion, in four days, Hill said.

“The new pad alleviated the congestion of the west tarmac,” said Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Emilio Natalio with the 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment, based in Honduras. “We had CH-47s, C-130s and commercial aircraft taxiing and being loaded in close proximity. It’s much safer now.”

The new location, being closer to the fuel-storage tanks, has also helped speed the loading and delivery of aircraft fuel, he said — as have the RDT’s efforts to enhance communication with the fuel vendor and commercial flight traffic in the area.

In addition to aviation fuel, the RDT team coordinated the delivery of diesel fuel for generators and construction equipment.

DLA Distribution, Information Operations Pitch In

DLA Distribution personnel also lent their expertise, coordinating detailed shipment instructions specific to Haiti to ensure prompt delivery of materiel. One example was the shipment of mission-critical repair parts for the Halvorsen 25K cargo loader — a large, wheeled flatbed vehicle — as well as insect repellant and sunscreen provided by DLA Aviation. DLA Distribution, working with the RDT, tracked all shipments to delivery.

Another critical need DLA helped with was water, Haslam said. In a disaster area, potable water must be conserved and used only for drinking when possible. The RDT used its expeditionary contracting authority to secure daily delivery of 3,000 gallons of non-potable water to wash aircraft and provide sanitation for JTF-Matthew headquarters.

The Contingency Information Technology Division of DLA Information Operations played a critical role in supporting the RDT and the JTF-Matthew mission. The CITD provided a secure satellite link back to the enterprise network, voice-over-internet phones, satellite phones, wireless hotspots, printing and other capabilities.

Hill also said the portable communications system was invaluable in giving the team reliable communications with DLA staff in the United States. For example, “when we had requirements coming up, we used the phone lines and email to communicate with DLA Troop Support.”

“DLA’s [information technology] support was absolutely critical to our mission,” said Army Capt. Adam Grover, commander of the 689th Rapid Port Opening Element of the Army’s Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command. His unit deployed with a smaller support package but was able to use the IT package from DLA’s CITD. “It really helped our mission,” Grover said.

Partners on the Ground

Army Maj. Patrick Hardin, the deputy chief of the Security Cooperation Office for the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, praised the DLA team. The SCO consists of U.S. military members who assist the Department of State as liaisons to local security and military officials.

The role of the SCO in a disaster or other emergency is to establish the mission and then help coordinate it, Hardin explained.

“We’re able to get a response off the ground,” he said. “When there’s a disaster and DoD is requested, we’re the liaison to the higher headquarters, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance [of the U.S. Agency for International Development] and SOUTHCOM, as well as local security forces.”

So DLA’s expertise was crucial in contracting for supplies, Hardin said. “DLA was critical to the movement of goods, when it came time for major contracts for water, meals ready to eat or any other kind of big-ticket item,” he said.

“What was great about having DLA there was that the contracting officers know where the reachback is and who to contact. And all we’re doing once mission has started is pointing them in the right direction.”

This freed Hardin’s team to deal with the emerging responsibilities in its area of expertise, he said.

“It was absolutely critical to have [the DLA team] on the ground, because it allowed us to concentrate on other things. Getting supplies in like helicopter parts, vehicle parts — for all that stuff, we know the process but not the points of contact or necessarily how you can [get those supplies] in a mission like that.”

Communication Challenges

Army Capt. Ola Ogunlola was the operations officer in the SCO.

For JTF-Matthew, “our job was to facilitate the smooth reception and staging of the task force as they arrived with over 400 service members and civilians,” he said.

“As the SCO, we made sure they got on the ground and could set up and commence operations effortlessly,” Ogunlola said. “And we did that with the help of enablers, including DLA logistics guys — contracting for life support, transportation, Port-A-Johns and water — without hitches, to provide aid to the people of Haiti in aftermath of disaster.”

This deployment was personal for Army Sgt. 1st Class Dyna Oscar-ExilHomme, noncommissioned officer in charge of training and administration in the SCO. Oscar-ExilHomme was born in Haiti. She came to America as a refugee with her family and then decided to serve her adopted nation in uniform. Her fluency in Haitian Creole was especially valuable to JTF Matthew.

“Especially with the drivers the first few days, it was kind of crazy,” she said, recalling the numerous delivery trucks whose drivers spoke only Creole or even Spanish. “People would come to me and ask me to translate.”

Some of the JTF Matthew members tried directing trucks with hand gestures, Oscar-ExilHomme said; this worked as far as getting them to the right location, but someone still needed to explain to the Haitian security that the drivers had authorization to pass through that checkpoint.

One cultural nuance showed just how valuable a native speaker was. “A lot of the time, the JTF staff would explain something and get what they thought a nod of understanding in return,” Oscar-ExilHomme said.

But in Haiti, as in some other countries, a nod doesn’t necessarily mean you fully understand, Ogunlola explained.

“In Haiti, nodding is born of a desire to be polite and to please you — to show respect and willingness to work with you. But you have to drill down to make sure the information they received was interpreted as intended. I often had to ask ‘What did I just say to you?’ to make sure they understood.”

One difficulty the JTF did not encounter was discomfort with U.S. military or civilian DoD personnel, Ogunlola said. “The U.S. has a tremendous amount of goodwill here in Haiti. They highly appreciate all that the United States has done in the past and is doing now in Haiti. And we benefit from that goodwill in the SCO.”

This shows in easier access to Haitian officials and facilities, he noted. “We have a partnership with the Haitian government at the highest levels, including the Haitian National Police. And I can just call up the chief on the phone,” Ogunlola said. In other countries, “they often have a cumbersome bureaucratic process” for such contact.

Similarly, U.S. military members “can go to the National Police [headquarters] or Haitian Coast Guard base any time we want. And I appreciate that. In other countries … I have to be escorted around the base.”

So in missions like JTF Matthew, “we enjoy incredible cooperation that would’ve been much more difficult [elsewhere]. That goodwill pays a lot of dividend for us in the SCO.”

Ogunlola said this respect is largely due to America’s history of assisting Haiti in events such as hurricanes, earthquakes and famines. “Every Haitian, if you ask them where you want to go, they’ll say America,” he said. “There’s a strong cultural affinity for the United States.”

A Grateful Neighbor

Oscar-ExilHomme said it meant a lot for her to serve in this effort as an American who came from Haiti. And she has a special insight into the population’s enthusiasm for the United States.

“In the uniform, the level of respect I get from females and males — it’s beyond words. They respect and love the U.S. uniform. … I get looked at a lot — not because they’re afraid but because they’re proud” to see a Haitian in an American uniform, Oscar-ExilHomme said.

She recalled visiting one of the more dangerous parts of Haiti in uniform, soon after arriving in Haiti to serve in the SCO. “We went to street market. When they saw the U.S. flag on my uniform, I kept hearing over and over, ‘USA, bon ba gay!’ [baw bah guy],’ which basically means ‘USA, good stuff!’”

During JTF Matthew, “they were asking so many questions and were so excited we were there. They said ‘You all should stay longer.’ And I like that,” she said.

The DLA personnel in particular were “an incredible force multiplier for us, given the size of our office here, which is only three Army guys,” Ogunlola noted. “And to have to support a task force of over 400 troops — there’s no way we could’ve done it.

“Without the DLA team, it would’ve been difficult to get the support the task force needed to do their jobs. It went seamlessly, and the Task Force was able to get the mission accomplished with the logistics backbone that the DLA team provided.”

The work of the RDT in this event shows the value of the training the RDT teams hone via exercises throughout the year, Haslam noted. DLA maintains three RDT teams, which alternate being on standby for real-world events and participating in training and a full backup team. Each RDT comprises a commander, an expeditionary contracting officer, a contingency IT specialist for communications, and a fourth member determined by the mission — in this case a distribution liaison officer.

In this operation, the relief effort continued in the hurricane’s aftermath, as the teams expanded their work to contain an emerging outbreak of cholera, Haslam said — aided by the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, which arrived on the scene several days after the DLA personnel.

“This project was a resounding success for JTF-Matthew and a demonstration of agile DLA support in a contingency,” Haslam said.