Army Brig. Gen. Eric P. Shirley joined the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support as its new commander June 22, starting a new chapter for the agency.
Shirley comes to Philadelphia after serving as the chief of staff for Operation Warp Speed, where he worked closely with former Chief Operating Officer, Retired Army Gen. Gustave Perna and team, to develop and distribute millions of COVID-19 vaccines. Perna is also a former DLA Troop Support commander.
In the following interview, Shirley took some time to talk with the DLA Troop Support Public Affairs team to discuss his goals for the agency and what the workforce can expect from him as their new commander.
Public Affairs: You’ve been at DLA Troop Support for about a month. How has your first month been? Do you feel settled in?
Shirley: The first month’s been great. When it was announced that I would be coming here, [there] was an overwhelming flood of people that previously served in and around DLA, a lot of the senior leaders that have been customers of DLA, [who were] very complimentary of the workforce.
It's been one great engagement after another as I've had a chance to sit through a series of staff and supply chain deep dives, watching how the headquarters element in the J3/5 fuses all the different operations that Troop Support has going on at any given time.
The continuity [of the Command team] and expertise in dealing with a great Department of Defense civilian workforce, that's irreplaceable. Without their expertise, I certainly would be sinking at the deep end of the pool right now. It’s probably one of the best beginnings that I've ever been able to enjoy coming to any team in my 28-year Army career.
Your prior role was as the chief of staff for Operation Warp Speed, where you saw first-hand how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the entire country. Can you describe that experience?
In May , when the [White House] announced Gen. Perna would takeover Operation Warp Speed in the Rose Garden ceremony, several of us in the Pentagon saw that press conference, and we knew that they had the absolute best person the DoD could have picked to lead the effort. It was a couple of days later I was told I'd be joining that team as the chief of staff.
There was no blueprint for how the interagency would come together to develop, manufacture, and distribute COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, but we did what the DoD is great at doing. We went in, and we assessed the situation. We established a battle rhythm. We assigned responsibilities to various leaders. We held everybody accountable, and we accelerated what normally is a four-to-seven-year [timeline] to develop a vaccine.
That was something historic. We really felt a sense of accomplishment there. It was because of all the great, selfless servants in the DoD, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the interagency that came together to make that happen. There are a lot of people who, like DLA Troop Support over the last year or 15 months, put your head down and went to work seven days a week, and made defeating the virus our number one mission.
You held your first town hall shortly after you assumed command of Troop Support. It’s still a unique time for the workforce, with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping many on telework. What can the workforce expect from you as their commander?
There are certainly some lessons learned from the pandemic. It’s hard to say there's a silver lining there, but maybe we can take from all the challenges and adversities this pandemic has faced us with some best practices for telework and distributed operations that we’ll put in place going forward and sustain.
What the workforce can expect from me is to be absolutely transparent in all the policy making decisions that are being updated as we go forward. I will communicate that as soon as I have the new reconstitution policy confirmed so that nobody is caught unaware at the “11th hour.” My commitment to the team is to always protect the employees and their families by maintaining the best practices that are currently established or required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Defense.
On the flip side of that question, what expectations do you have for the employees? How do you feel about leading a primarily civilian workforce?
I think that leading largely civilian organizations presents slightly different expectations. I fully expect a tremendous amount of technical competence and continuity in this organization, which I've seen. The thing that you spend a lot of time doing as a uniformed leader in a largely uniformed organization is training the multi-echelon teams, ensuring that you have squads and platoons that are cohesive, know their wartime mission, and can go out and perform in the field.
So somewhat different here in DLA Troop Support, you want to ensure that you're always doing team development, but it's more geared towards the exercise, or the product, if you will. It’s contract management, the entire acquisition process, quality assurance and quality control on the deliverables for our contract partners.
Troop Support, more so than any other [DLA] major subordinate command, has to be very closely tied into the requirements of the combatant commands and the service component commands around the world so that we can provide anticipatory, prompt and sustained readiness to enhance lethality for these warfighters.
Do you have any specific goals for yourself and the organization while you’re here?
Yes, personally, lots of goals. I think that I am really going to benefit from understanding the entirety of the acquisition process. [DLA Troop Support Executive Director and Head of Contracting Activity William J.] Kenny is tremendous, probably one of the most experienced leaders in DoD. I look forward to understanding how he does his business. Each of the supply chains are so well-versed and rich in their experience, each one has an entire vista that I can learn from.
The goals that I have for the organization are to grow our overall support portfolio to our COCOMS and service components first. Through active engagement coordinated with the J3/5 and each of our DLA regional commanders, I want to provide insight about all that DLA Troop Support can do for them. Because I think there's some unrecognized potential that’s here in this headquarters, from Construction and Equipment’s special operational equipment, all the advances that we've made with the Medical supply chain on personal protective equipment; and there are certainly some initiatives that we're working in Subsistence with kiosks and other novel field feeding and garrison feeding operations that I don't think all the services are aware of.
You described your vision for leading Troop Support as “PRIDE”: professionalism, responsiveness, innovation, disciplined execution, and everyday enterprise excellence. Can you speak more about this vision?
We have to show up every day as humble servants for our nation and the warfighters and earn, as we always do, the accolades that we've had attributed to us here at DLA Troop Support. But, we know where our point of departure is - that we're here solely to support the warfighter.
As we do that mission every day, we've got to recognize and take pride in how well we do this. There are no other agencies out there that are doing it better than DLA Troop Support on a daily basis. You should as an individual, whether a uniformed leader or a DoD civilian employee that works here, take great pride in what this organization has accomplished during the COVID-19 era, and even before then.
We're not a corporate entity, we're not here running our own individual businesses. We're in the business of generating readiness for the warfighters.
You identify your Myers Briggs types as INTP and ISTJ, and speak highly of the book “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek. As a leader, how important is it for people to know their strengths and weaknesses?
We all have a story about what brought us here. I think what becomes important is understanding that each of us individually - when you're a member of a rifle squad, a quartermaster platoon, or the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support - you are a teammate. You're part of a team that has a greater purpose for the good of those service members.
That lends itself to the organizational purpose and why I wanted to highlight “Start with Why,” because once you get into a large, technically complex supply chain acquisition strategy, you can almost be too focused on the details. It’s easy to get lost in numbers sometimes, and metrics have their place because we have to be good stewards of resources. What gets back to the individual at the end of the day is: leaders have to look leaders in the eye and do honest assessments of how well they have or have not delivered on behalf of those warfighters.
From an individual perspective, you have to know what your strengths and weaknesses are, whether it's understanding the business, communicating in front of large audiences or communicating to a superior and being able to have the in-person, internal fortitude, to give them either bad news or give them your best military advice. Then be the best advocate that you can on behalf of what DLA Troop Support does and take all that great insight from the supply chains and the teams here and make a successful case for why we should be their preferred mission partner.
You’ve had a lot of experience in the military, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. What has been your favorite part of your career?
I would say some of my “more fun” times have been when I was a student. At the military grad school, after Command and General Staff College, there's a program called the School of Advanced Military Studies . That was hugely challenging, but it's the best year of education I could have ever asked for.
For my war college experience, I got to go to Stanford University for a year, living in Palo Alto, California, and hang out at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, and have coffee in the morning with Jim Mattis before he became the Secretary of Defense. We got to present our research to Condoleezza Rice, who is a senior fellow there, and get her feedback. I pitched my thoughts on my research project there to a host of tremendously accomplished people. [Author and historian] Victor Davis Hansen was one of the senior professors there at Hoover and a big military history expert. Listening to him and all the roundtables we got to attend with George Shultz on policy…it was like heaven every day.
My best operational deployment though was when I was a major, and I deployed with the First Brigade and the First Cavalry Division, and we spent 15 months in Taji, Iraq. That 15-month rotation was two Halloweens, two Thanksgivings, two Christmases and two New Years because it started in October 2006 and finished in January of 2008. That was tough for the family, but a really, really good team.
Then there are the operational experiences. I deployed to Afghanistan immediately after battalion and brigade command, which were great teams, the First Infantry Division Headquarters, in 2012 and 2013. Then to CSTC-A [Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan], where I worked for Lt. Gen. James Rainey and Gen. Scott Miller at Resolute Support, working to support the Afghans. It was a good, hard year, rewarding.