FORT BELVOIR, Va. –
Military medical teams that augmented U.S. hospital staffs providing COVID-19 care had commercial lodging, food, laundry support and more with help from the Defense Logistics Agency mid-March through May.
A four-member team from DLA’s Joint Contingency Acquisition Support Office assisted U.S. Army North’s Operational Contract Support Integration Cell in coordinating commercial support requirements and sources for supplies and services needed by multiple military units.
Soldiers at ARNORTH’s expeditionary sustainment and theater support commands lack DLA’s experience with OCS during expeditionary and emergency events, said Lew Sigmon, JCASO’s deputy director of operations.
DLA commonly provides OCS for relief efforts following natural disasters. In 2014, JCASO representatives were part of the first group on the ground to identify sources of supply for U.S. Africa Command’s response to the Ebola pandemic. DLA representatives contracted for over $38 million in services alone for Ebola despite under-developed local economies.
Rather than create contracts for COVID-19, the JCASO team helped ARNORTH officials collect requirements, identify potential commercial support and plan for scenarios including the infection of deployed troops.
“Our challenge was training units to do operational contract support on their own while giving them time to actually do it,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Sandranell Moerbe, operations chief for the team.
Constantly changing priorities early in the response and the wide dispersion of medical units to hospitals in cities like Seattle, Boston and New Orleans complicated COVID-19 contracting support, Sigmon added.
“We would be focused on providing support to Dallas, for example, doing market research with the sustainment command responsible for that area, when suddenly we’d be told the priority was supporting Miami or New Orleans but, by the way, don’t forget Dallas,” he said.
Though most commercial support covered amenities like lodging and transportation, the team also helped assess commercial availability and vet vendors of medical-grade partitions used to separate beds in an alternate hospital in the CenturyLink Field Event Center. Members also helped source medical-grade gases.
“Most medical equipment was coordinated at higher levels because they didn’t want individual units buying up stuff the states and other federal agencies needed,” Moerbe said, adding that hospitals used normal supply processes.
Relying on commercial goods and services also helped speed support and lessened the need for additional deployed troops, Sigmon said.
“Using commercial solutions allowed the force to close in on areas that needed support in a rapid manner and limited deployments mostly to soldiers in medical and contracting fields,” he added.
ARNORTH and DLA employees managed data and monitored contracts through an online Intelink site created by JCASO’s Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joshua Burgess. The site enabled contracting integration cell members to share information and collaborate regardless of location.
“We wouldn’t have been able to provide the command as accurate a picture of the contracting operations that were going on in so many locations without the site,” said Dennis McGowan, chief of ARNORTH’s Acquisition and Contracting Division.
Maj. Lynnette MacKay, a foreign exchange officer with the Canadian Army and the JCASO team’s current operations officer, also coordinated efforts with U.S. Northern Command staff.
The team’s support helped the command provide rapid, seamless support, McGowan added.
“Outsiders didn’t know the difference between an Army North and JCASO member on the team,” he continued. “That matters because when you’re seen as an outsider, you don’t get the same level of trust and confidence as someone within the organization.”
Sigmon said involving JCASO in operational contract support ensured ARNORTH took advantage of DLA capabilities before seeking commercial supplies and services.
“Instead of going out and purchasing PPE and draining the local economy, the team worked with ARNORTH medical folks to make sure there was a policy put in place that required PPE needs to be routed through DLA channels,” he said. “It also ensured we were tracking supply and demand from a national perspective.”
Moerbe and Sigmon said they believe the team’s coaching and mentoring will prepare soldiers to take on more OCS responsibilities when JCASO goes away in September 2021 as a result of a defense-wide review of efficiencies. Part of the challenge in training military units, Moerbe said, is helping them realize operational contract support shouldn’t be an ad hoc task.
“JCASO’s No. 1 goal has been to be a joint enabler, and I think the COVID-19 response clearly showed how we’re able to provide the OCS joint capability,” Sigmon added. “We’ll have the ability up through our sunset to provide that service, but ultimately OCS has to be championed by commanders. Without that, OCS will continue to be a challenge.”