DLA historian chronicles agency’s early COVID-19 response

By Beth Reece DLA Public Affairs

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Contracting expertise, on-hand supplies and crisis-management strengths enabled the Defense Logistics Agency to quickly aid the nation’s pandemic response, according to a 41-page historical account titled “Combating the Coronavirus: DLA Efforts to Defeat COVID-19.”

Written by DLA Historian Colin Williams, the document chronicles the first five months of DLA’s support to the Defense Department and federal agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“COVID-19 provided Americans an education in supply chain management,” the paper begins. “People who had never thought about where things came from learned quickly that personal protective equipment, ventilator availability and small business fragility meant the difference between life and death.”

The agency’s purchasing power and contracting vehicles such as prime vendors enabled it to meet military needs for personal protective equipment while also providing critical medical supplies for nationwide hospitals, test sites and nursing homes, Williams said.

“Through the requests we received from and fulfilled for FEMA and HHS, we’ve supported the American people directly,” he said. “Federal organizations depended on us because they knew nobody else had the purchasing power to meet rapidly increasing demands. If they went elsewhere, the nation would have paid a lot more money.”

The paper describes DOD’s leading logistics agency as a champion in analysis, technology and information management tools that yield continuous improvements in supply chain management. That allowed it to create demand prediction models for protective equipment, build automated data on stock levels and requirements across DOD and federal agencies, and use advanced manufacturing for items like face shields.

Lessons agency officials learned during previous military operations and humanitarian support missions also empowered DLA to respond, Williams said. In the Gulf War, DLA provided items like food and cots with great success but struggled with medical supplies that had a shelf life. DLA’s solution: the Warstopper program, which helps the agency preplan for surge requirements of critical items by purchasing material in advance and paying vendors to keep it available.

Warstopper contracts helped the agency provide items like N95 respirators but couldn’t cover all federal requests since it was resourced for the military’s go-to-war requirements rather than national demands, Williams wrote.

“By the end of June, over 2.5 million Americans had caught the virus and over 126,000 had died. Despite these numbers, it was difficult incentivizing suppliers to increase production. Companies had to be convinced that the need was permanent. While anxious to help, they had to know it was profitable to do so,” the paper reads.

Williams also depicted the work of DLA acquisition officials and small business specialists who began tracking suppliers’ business status and market conditions daily in early March. In June, the agency opened the COVID-19 Contingency Corridor in FedMall for small business contractors performing government contracts to buy items like non-medical masks, gloves, Plexi-glass shields and temperature sensors.

Williams spent three months writing the account and had access to senior leader meetings and documents about all aspects of DLA’s support. He ended the paper in June because that’s when former DLA Director Army Lt. Gen. Darrell Williams retired.

“I chose that stopping point because it was the end of Gen. Williams’ time and he influenced our response so much. He of course had people helping him, but his personality and ideas helped shape our support,” Williams said. “He also thought it was important that DLA’s efforts be documented and used to continue improving our processes.”

Chapters about supporting Americans and the advantages of managed supply chains were the most interesting to write, Williams said, and he recommends readers short on time review those chapters and the conclusion.

“What is perhaps most impressive about DLA’s COVID-19 response is that employees never forgot they were saving lives. More than anything else, it was the agency’s culture – a widely held commitment to serving customers and country – that helped them remember,” Williams wrote.

Williams is DLA’s 7th historian. The first two finished their tours with DLA before the agency’s first director, Army Lt. Gen. Andrew McNamara, left in 1964. He hopes to become the first to write an official history about a defense agency by authoring a series of books covering DLA in 20-year increments.

“Unfortunately, we’re missing a lot of documents from the 80s, so if I don’t find the right records and interview people to write about that time, then there’s a great span of our past that will be gone for good,” he said.

The paper and other information about DLA’s history is available at DLA's History page.