Defense Logistics Agency customers usually don’t have to make a long-distance call to get help from Phillip LaBranche. For all but three of his 17 years at DLA Aviation he’s voluntarily deployed to work alongside service members around the world.
“I’ve always felt that the best place to serve the customer is where the customer lives and works,” said LaBranche, a 10-time deployer whose been everywhere from the Middle East to Haiti. In between the longer deployments, he’s also supported largescale training exercises in South Korea and Hawaii.
Wherever he is, deploying is about looking customers in the eyes, LaBranche said. That means sitting in on unit maintenance meetings, where he can see the urgency on troops’ faces as they fret about how long it’s taking for parts to come in. Being there as customers determine exactly what they need to achieve their mission, LaBranche can quickly reach back to counterparts at DLA headquarters and field activities to expedite delivery or invent workarounds that tighten the supply line.
“This is job satisfaction at its best,” said the 68-year-old, who is one of four customer account specialists on DLA Aviation’s emergency-essential deployment team.
LaBranche returned in August from what he predicts to be his final deployment, a six-month tour at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania. The base is a hub for equipment, supplies and troops transitioning in and out of the U.S. European Command and U.S. Central Command areas of operation.
In addition to assisting a Marine Corps unit permanently based there with spare parts, shipment tracking and training on DLA ordering systems like FedMall, he supported units at training areas scattered throughout the country with such support as hazardous waste removal and subsistence planning. While material disposal and food aren’t managed by LaBranche’s field activity, he knows enough about DLA’s business that he can assist customers with needs in other areas. DLA’s information technology systems and business practices also make it easier.
“As a liaison, you have to know a bit about all the supply chains. Customers rely on us to help them figure out where they can get support and to link up with DLA folks back in Europe or the United States,” he said.
LaBranche made his first deployment in 2001 to Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo, where he spent four months providing helicopter and ground-vehicle support. He was scheduled to leave the same week in September that terrorists attacked the nation. Although operations ceased at many U.S. airports, LaBranche was so determined to support DLA’s customers that he drove from his home in Williamsburg, Virginia, to Fort Benning, Georgia, to catch a flight overseas.
Helping America’s warfighters in Kosovo so inspired LaBranche that in 2003 he made the first of three deployments to camp Arifjan, Kuwait. There, he worked with troops in direct support of forces in Iraq, as well as coalition forces from Poland, Ukraine and Italy. His sense of accomplishment grew.
“I’ve got it in my blood now,” he said after his first time there. “I’m ready to go again. Each tour gives you a different perspective and a chance to experience different cultures.”
Back in Kuwait again in August 2004, LaBranche worked to expedite critical items like armor plating for Humvees. Explosive devices used in Iraq were becoming deadlier then, and the Department of Defense was scrambling to provide up-armored kits for vehicles.
“Even though they were in full production, there was a long lead time. We knew the extreme importance of this item and kept close watch over its status,” he said.
LaBranche got a taste of the danger inherent with deployment to the Middle East when his team traveled from Kuwait to Iraq to assess repair-parts support. As they sat on the tarmac awaiting travel back to Kuwait, the area came under rocket attack. The group endured a “frightening wait” that LaBranche still remembers. Even then, DLA Today reports quoted him saying, “I am keeping my options open” for another deployment.
He returned to Kuwait for a six-month tour in 2006 as the newly hired Kuwait customer support representative with a one-year permanent change of duty station. He extended twice, and after a short break back at DLA Aviation in Richmond he did six months in Baghdad in 2009.
In January 2010, a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti, killing more than 160,000 people and displacing about 1.5 million. Again, LaBranche deployed, helping DLA provide millions of tons of food, tents, cots, medical supplies, fuel and other relief supplies.
By then, LaBranche was hooked on deploying. “There’s nothing like it in the world,” he said in 2011. Although he arrived at DLA after 22 years in Navy supply, LaBranche said the experience helped him to continue growing professionally and personally.
“I have the experience of being out in the field with the customers and assisting them with their supply issues, as well as getting a chance to travel, meet new people and broaden my experience base.”
LaBranche also helped forge DLA’s role in Africa as a warfighter support representative in Djibouti in 2015. He oversaw food deliveries to Navy ships and took part in initial planning for the Djibouti First Initiative, now a long-term Department of Defense effort to acquire local goods and services for military members across the continent while helping African businesses thrive.
Military customers and fellow employees regard LaBranche as a problem solver who positively influences the military’s mission. Amelia Stanko, another DLA Aviation employee, credits LaBranche for making it possible for her to deploy despite being in a contracting officer position. To deploy, employees typically have to be working as a customer account specialist or in supply.
“I wanted to go overseas to see how we affect the warfighter. Everything we get from the customer always seems like an emergency; the customer needs it yesterday. I wanted to know why,” she said.
LaBranche spent six months mentoring Stanko, teaching her to read maintenance reports and respond to them using information available through DLA’s online tracking tools.
“All of a sudden, I knew how to track materials. I knew where it was stuck and when I could expect to get it. I even learned to determine whether someone else had it and whether we could swap it out to fill backorders,” she added.
Though DLA was just beginning to send civilians to the battlefield when LaBranche made his first deployment in 2001, DLA has since created a structured process for military and civilian deployments that includes training and medical screening overseen by DLA’s Joint Logistics Operations Center Mission Support Branch.