Deploy and Dispose

By Jake Joy, DLA Disposition Services

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The violent crunch of industrial shredders pulverizing ammunition boxes. The screech of 1,000-pound shears disfiguring obsolete aircraft hulls. The roar of armor-piercing plasma cutters slicing effortlessly through Howitzer barrels.

These are the native sounds of fictional “Michiganistan,” where Defense Logistics Agency reverse logistics professionals congregate each summer to practice for a potentially austere life together downrange.

DLA Disposition Services handles the disposal or potential reuse, transfer and donation of used and obsolete equipment, hazardous waste and demilitarization-required military gear at its permanent yards and warehouses around the world.

Other than basic refuse and some special waste categories like explosive residue or biological or radioactive materials, if the U.S. military generally needs disposal of something, DLA is there to take charge. The agency continually tweaks the positioning of its global workforce and their destructive machines to meet the disposal needs of the armed services.

Sometimes, however, providing on-time warfighter support requires even greater speed and flexibility. During natural or man-made disaster response, during a sudden escalation in hostilities or during precision strikes of a limited scope and duration, DLA has to ensure it can marshal resources quickly to provide uninterrupted logistical support to expeditionary U.S. forces. The agency’s long-term strategy includes an increased focus on the development of expeditionary or quick-reaction capabilities, and DLA Disposition Services initiatives are helping pave the way.

One critical part of ensuring deployment-ready disposition support comes in the form of annual Overseas Contingency Operations Readiness Training, held in Battle Creek, Michigan, for members of its six military disposal units and expeditionary civilians. The two-week OCORT event serves as a capstone experience for military-civilian groups that learn and work side by side to build up the individual’s disposal skillsets while working toward a deployment-ready team status.

“The way DLA prepares people to deploy has vastly improved. When I deployed, you just showed up and said ‘here I am, what am I doing?’ The stuff we’re doing [now] … this is awesome,” said Navy Lt. j.g. Chris Deason, the officer in charge of Disposal Support Unit 2, out of Columbus, Ohio, and a first-time OCORT participant in 2017.

He previously deploy-ed for DLA but never had a chance for OCORT-depth training prior to heading overseas.

“What we’re doing here is way more than what [training] I was doing as an enlisted guy. This has grown in leaps and bounds,” he said. “To me, this exercise is phenomenal. I love it.”

Expeditionary Operations Chief Tim Walters, the OCORT director, said the continuous evolution and improvement of pre-deployment training is due to a few key realities. For one, DLA Disposition Services, despite representing a relatively small slice of the agency’s population, has accounted for more than half of DLA’s civilian and military deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan since contingencies began in both those nations roughly 15 years ago. Working the tail end of the logistics cycle often means physically going to where equipment finally gave out or outlived its purpose. The thing about sending lots of people to work in forward locations: The plentiful  opportunities for trial and error generate a wealth of lessons.

“We’re the subject-matter experts when it comes to the ultimate disposal of property,” OCORT 2017 Exercise Area Manager Greg Dangremond said. “We’re the ones that dot the final i’s and cross the final t’s. We have to do our due diligence on the back end.”

When OCORT began in 2013, participants focused specifically on personal deployment readiness and preparation for the Afghanistan retrograde mission, Walters said.

However, lessons learned in the first decade of war revealed a greater need for service members and civilian logisticians to build mutual understanding and rapport prior to being thrown together for the first time in a fast-paced and hostile environment. Civilians were incorporated into the following year’s training.

“Sometimes, when deployed, [civilians] weren’t sure of what the [military disposal teams] were capable of doing,“ said Victor Ambegia, one of nine civilians who first took part in the exercise. And they didn’t know what expertise we had. It was like two teams working on one site. Here, civilians are learning the [military unit] structure, and they are seeing our expertise. We’re both learning things,”

Feedback was uniformly positive, and combined training of military and civilians quickly became a regular occurrence. Expeditionary operations plans provided for more mixed training evolutions to allow the groups to teach each other and develop familiarity.

“It really is a team effort,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy Bunnell, the officer in charge of the first 2014 OCORT, which incorporated civilians for the first time.

“We thought we knew how [combining trainees] would work. We thought that as the circumstances dictated, the [Civilian Expeditionary Workforce volunteers] would step up, because they have a higher level of technical expertise than the military, typically, and they would augment our training cadre. That has worked, in my opinion, beyond my wildest expectations. It has been a huge success from a teamwork perspective, from a knowledge perspective, across the board.”

The Expeditionary Site Set, known as “DRMO in a Box,” — referring to the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office  — represents another lesson learned from time spent downrange and another big OCORT training goal fully realized in time for the 2015 exercise.

Planners analyzed years of deployer feedback to develop and perfect the ESS: a modular, scalable and fully functional disposition site that can generate its own power, arrives with the tools and the personnel trained to handle the job, and provides for living and working spaces for the 15-20 logisticians who would be responsible for setting it up in less than a week and then operating it indefinitely.  

“You’re going into a site with no amenities,” said Bill Kelley, a former Afghanistan site chief who played a Michiganistan area manager during the 2017 exercise. He said the ESS concept has accounted for all the core disposition tasks and allows people to arrive at a contingency with expectations of what they will have to work with rather than making piecemeal adaptations to conditions on the ground.

“We’ve got a lot of different capabilities here,” Kelley said. “We can do basically anything from A to Z.”

Kelley said that by the end of the first exercise day, the team ideally has built up its housing, and its field communications assets provided by DLA Information Operations have come online. By the end of four days, the team should have its yard set and ready to handle just about any property that arrives. He said that in a situation like disaster response, having site sets ready to go saves DLA “hours and days, versus having to put all the stuff together and figure out how we’re going to get it there.”

Trainers add to the exercise complexity with scenarios or “injects” that mirror the kind of challenges that frequently pop up when operating in an austere environment. Some scenarios involve site visits by VIPs and media. Some involve accidents or equipment that did not show up. One of the 2017 scenarios involved a generator failure. Participants got an opportunity to practice switching out cables to keep the power flowing to their portable buildings.

“Equipment goes down downrange,” Dangremond said. “Depending on how long your equipment has been in country, it may be super reliable or it may be unreliable.”

An additional layer of realism added during the 2016 iteration was the incorporation of real-life customers who surrender their used items to participants during the exercise. By 2017, real-life OCORT customer turn-ins had grown to include 13 customers representing all service branches that generated 126 items weighing 240,000 pounds.

“It’s been a truly joint, or purple, environment,” Dangremond said. “It’s been one mission, one team, one fight, and so far, everyone has integrated beautifully.” 

This year, DLA Disposition Services exercise participants were joined by a pair of separate agency entities whose training events not only overlapped but also took place within mere miles of one another.

Just across the street from Michiganistan, personnel supporting the DLA Distribution Deployable Depot held a weeklong field training exercise and a little farther away, at the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, one of the agency’s two Rapid Deployment Teams represented the full power of the organization’s capabilities during U.S. Transportation Command’s Turbo Distribution exercise.

Held in New Jersey in 2015 and California in 2016, this was the first time the TRANSCOM event took place in Michigan. It tests the ability of a joint task force to arrive at an airfield with minimal infrastructure, receive airlifts and then move supplies forward by truck convoy and stage them for distribution. DLA’s role is important, and its rapid deployment personnel included headquarters planners and a representative from each major subordinate command to coordinate warfighter demands on each functional area. 

Looking ahead to OCORT 2018, Walters said planning has already begun. One exercise goal is to align more closely with a major regional turn-in customer, the Michigan National Guard, so disposition training can support annual Guard exercises that happen to be among the biggest in the country. Trainers will look to continue upping the realism and complexity level to match what logisticians might face in an expeditionary environment and give participants a chance to improve in a supportive environment.

“It’s the time and place for mistakes to be made and for participants to learn as a team and as individuals,” Walters said.