Commentary: Deployment leads to valuable experience for employee while supporting warfighter

By Dean Gilbert, chief, Sourcing and Analysis Division Strategic Acquisition Programs Directoratem DLA Aviation

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(Editor’s Note:  DLA Aviation’s Public Affairs Office recently learned that several DLA Aviation employees would be overlapping their deployments on DLA Support Team-Afghanistan. Below is Dean Gilbert’s commentary, the first in a series highlighting team member positions and deployment experiences. Gilbert deployed as the deputy commander of DST Afghanistan from Sept 2018 - March 2019.  Back stateside, he serves as DLA Aviation’s chief, Sourcing and Analysis Division, Strategic Acquisition Programs Directorate)

I had seen the emails asking for volunteers for years and always had it in the back of my mind as something I would like to do. I was in Army from 1984 - 87, but never deployed. One of the most important things I value in a job is being able to do something important. I think that’s what has driven my career choices, first for volunteering for the Army right out of high school, then being a police officer once out of the Army and finally getting my college degree and starting to work for Defense Logistics Agency Aviation. That was 21 years ago.

These were all jobs where I felt like I was doing something important and made a real difference. At DLA, deploying as the Afghanistan team deputy commander was the ultimate opportunity for me to see for myself the difference we make to the warfighter and our country.  When in theater, we are the one face of DLA to all the customers in Afghanistan. They look to us for all things DLA - and some that are not.

There are a lot of personal factors to consider when thinking about deploying, but for me, the timing was finally right. I had reached a level and experience in my career where I felt I could make a big contribution to the effort and personally, my daughter had just left home to attend the University of Virginia.

Professionally, I love the job I am doing in the Strategic Acquisition Programs Directorate and do not want to leave, but I have been there almost six years, so I felt it would be a good temporary change. It was an excellent opportunity to go down range. I learned about “Big DLA” and saw the fruits of our efforts in our day-to-day jobs.

I heard from previous deployees that the hardest part was getting there and they were right.

I went to Continental U.S. Replacement Center in Fort Bliss, Texas, for in-processing with the Army. It was ironic because 34 years ago, I left home as an 18-year-old private for basic training at the same place. However, as a general schedule (GS)-14, which in military ranks is a lieutenant colonel equivalent, I was expecting it to be vastly different than my first experience.

In many ways, I felt the same as I did when I was a private.

The flights to Afghanistan were spotty. We waited in a Kuwait hangar for nine hours before leaving for Bagram, Afghanistan, at “o’dark-thirty” [before daybreak.] When we landed, I dropped my gear off and went into work to begin my transition. Everything was a blur because I had not slept in more than 24 hours. I remember sitting in meetings that first day and only thing I could concentrate on was just keeping my eyes open.

As the DST deputy commander and the civilian supervisor for all DLA personnel in theater, I was responsible for more than three dozen individuals. My three main priorities were: operational readiness, accountability of personnel and teambuilding/administrative support.

Operational Readiness: The team’s main focus was to represent DLA down-range, ensuring our warfighters had all the materials they needed to execute US Forces-Afghanistan mission (USFOR-A). This included all classes of supply DLA manages. We interacted daily with customers to train, expedite material, and provide updates on DLA support. I routinely briefed USFOR-A leaders on DLA capabilities and reached back to the various enterprise supply chains to provide intelligence on changing requirements and alleviate constraints.

Accountability of Personnel: This is a priority due to the wartime environment. It was imperative to know and account for DLA personnel at all times. If there was an incident, I have to provide accountability of all DLA personnel within 20 minutes.

Teambuilding/Administrative Support: I managed personnel from all DLA major subordinate commands and DLA Disposition Services. Our employees come not knowing each other, from different work environments for a limited, six-month deployment. Along with the stress of long work hours and the wartime environment, it can be a challenge to create a cohesive team. I made this a priority by stressing the “One DLA” concept, conducting teambuilding events and creating standard operating procedures to have continuity on some rules for our shared living area.

I think the most important thing I brought to the deployment was 20 plus years of knowledge and experience. I started at DLA as an item manager, which provided me with a very good training platform for the logistics supply chain and my jobs since allowed me, at one time or another, to work in almost every directorate: Supplier and Customer Operations, Business Process Support and Strategic Acquisition Programs. However, I realized that even with all the experience I had working at DLA Aviation, DLA is a huge enterprise! I had to quickly learn other classes of supply like Class I (rations, subsistence, morale and welfare items), Class III (petroleum, oils, and lubricants), Class IV (construction materials), Class VIII (medical material), and DLA Disposition Services.

This assignment was very different. It gave me a lot of insight into how the Department of Defense at an enterprise logistics level interacts, not just the U.S., but also its NATO partners. Also, it was pretty cool hearing about important changes or events even before major broadcast networks!

The feeling that you are doing something important and making a difference was the best thing about this deployment.  The ability to influence people from different jobs or backgrounds to bond and work together as “One Team,” even if only for short duration is truly satisfying.

On the flipside the nature of short six-month deployments are challenging for building teams and training. Basically, by the time you trained and were comfortable with everyone, it was time to leave.

To anyone considering deploying, I advise them to look at why they are considering it and what they expect. If the only thing they are considering is the extra money, I think they might need to reconsider, I believe you need a deeper motivation then just the pay to be successful over here.

Also with today’s technology, the ability to stay in contact with family back home is great! I stayed in touch with family, coworkers, and friends almost as easily as if I were back home. It made life much easier.