FORT BELVOIR, Va. –
From crackers and sanitation kits for America’s fallout shelters during the Cold War to COVID-19 supplies so direly needed in every state and town, one defense organization has the power to provide essentials in the nation’s time of need.
The Defense Logistics Agency was created in October 1961 to manage common goods for the military services. Its worldwide network of supplies, distribution assets and contracting experts has supported U.S. troops in peace and at war. And though “DLA” may not yet be a household name, it’s touched American lives through whole-of-government support that stretches back to the agency’s roots.
“DLA’s work has always been tied to the greater American story. There’s very little the nation has done where we haven’t had some supporting role,” DLA Historian Colin Williams said.
Fallout shelter supplies were the first items DLA bought for use by the American public. Fear of a nuclear attack was so real the agency assembled medical kits and stockpiled supplies in caves in the Allegheny mountains.
“We kept them for so long we had to set up an inspection schedule to ensure shelf-stable foods really were shelf stable,” Williams said.
The agency went on to source the antenna that broadcast man’s first walk on the moon. And when gas shortages and steep prices during the 1970s energy crisis ignited strikes and families ran short of heating oil, DLA brought stability by using the Defense Production Act to order large quantities at better prices than those available to the general population.
American companies that wanted to send free goods to troops in the Gulf War also got a hand from DLA when it partnered with companies like Nabisco, Mars Inc. and USA Today to palletize and ship Oreos, M&Ms, books, newspapers and more.
Though Hurricane Katrina wasn’t the first storm to invoke DLA support, its Category 5 winds and resulting floods stranded over a million people needing basic supplies. DLA sent items like food, bottled water and sleeping bags for residents suddenly rendered homeless to Federal Emergency Management Agency staging areas.
DLA support was so vital to the months-long recovery following Katrina that the agency created contingency contracts to respond to FEMA requirements for humanitarian aid in future disasters.
“Katrina really put DLA on the map when it comes to supporting the nation in a crisis,” DLA Vice Director Brad Bunn said. “By bringing commercial supply chains together with our organic distribution capabilities, it became obvious we were able to deliver supplies wherever they’re needed and, frankly, at a reasonable cost because of our ability to leverage large-scale buys.”
After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, DLA provided 6 million commercial meals as well as blankets, cots and other supplies for citizens and first responders. But Hurricane Maria in 2017 showcased the agency’s ability to support broader needs. DLA Troop Support sent commodities like handheld radios and medicine to Puerto Rico, and DLA Disposition Services helped victims remove scrap metal from crumpled homes and other debris scattered across the island.
“In rebuilding the power grid, it wasn’t just a matter of generators. We brought in the actual telephone poles and all the wiring to rebuild that grid,” said William Kinney, executive director of contracting and acquisition at DLA Troop Support.
America’s schools have been helped by DLA, too. Through Computers for Learning, pre-kindergarten and grade-school classrooms are furnished with laptops, monitors and keyboards considered excess by the Defense Department.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are also sent to school kitchens across the country through DOD’s Fresh Program, a partnership between DLA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that also supports U.S. farmers. When COVID-19 closed schools, DLA helped provide produce to students’ families. And a similar program allows the agency to put fruit, vegetables and eggs on the dining tables of low-income Native Americans.
“This helps my family out tremendously. Each box is a surprise … I’m very thankful for what I get,” said Titiana Burks from the Shoalwater Bay Tribe in Washington.
Homeless veterans get a lift from the agency, as well. DLA Disposition Services holds hundreds of annual events around the nation to distribute boots, parkas, sleeping bags, towels, cold-weather gear and other items.
Even American small businesses have flourished from DLA support. In fiscal 2021, over 7,000 small businesses like those owned by minorities and service-disabled veterans were awarded contracts worth $13 billion.
“DLA implements several small business socioeconomic contracting programs, which means we’re protecting American jobs and supporting those who’ve been historically underserved, marginalized or affected by persistent poverty,” said Chris Hall, deputy director of the DLA Small Business Office.
DLA has also been a pillar in the U.S. government’s response to COVID-19. DLA Troop Support provided gowns, gloves, test kits and more for nursing homes; masks for local community centers; ventilators and medical supplies for hospitals; and protective equipment to replenish the Strategic National Stockpile. The agency even made it easier for small businesses with government contracts to purchase items like hand sanitizer and Plexi-glass shields to protect workers. And states like Tennessee received medical supplies including defibrillators and surgical bandages from excess DOD inventory.
DLA Energy Deputy Director Dave Kless, who served as DLA Operations’ executive director from the beginning of the response until June, said DLA’s reputation for helping the nation during natural disasters made it an obvious solution for sourcing hard-to-get material.
“There was an immediate gravitation to, ‘Hey, we’ve worked with DLA before,’ and ‘DLA, are there things you can do to help us with providing medical supplies, transportation capability, acquisition capability?’”
The need for some supplies was so urgent that many missions went from concept to execution in less than a week, he added, attributing the agency’s success to employees “just doing what had to be done for the good of the country.”
DLA Aviation Commander Air Force Brig. Gen. David Sanford, who helped coordinate whole-of-government efforts as director of the COVID-19 Supply Chain Task Force and Supply Chain Advisory Group, called the agency’s contributions an important part of DLA history.
“We will be captured in every after-action report as a success for being able to step in and provide the capabilities that the other government agencies didn’t have internally,” he said. “DLA was able to step into that gap and support the entire United States, and it’s not often that you get to say that.”
Even as DLA worked to ensure delivery of vaccines for overseas employees, it equipped wildfire responders with everything from chainsaws and fire hoses to hard hats as they fought fires sprawling across millions of acres in numerous states. And in February, the agency supported Texas residents with food and fuel during record-breaking snow and ice that brought multi-day power outages, broken pipes and road closures.
Such support is possible and continues to grow partly because of DLA’s alliances with industry, Bunn said.
“DLA is an enormous machine of procurement and logistics so capable at largescale support that when there’s a requirement that expands beyond DOD, it makes sense for the country, the federal government, the White House and Congress to look to us as a potential solution,” he added.
The nation’s growing reliance on agency capabilities like procurement and distribution suggest the role is permanent for DLA, Bunn continued.
“I think in the future we’ll be seen as thought leaders and consultants on how to best replicate some of these functions, even if we continue to support in areas of our core competencies,” he said.
Bunn described DLA employees as genuinely inspired to help warfighters and Americans at large.
“In most cases they’re volunteers who could choose not to be part of an emergency essential group or expeditionary team, but they’re connected from a cultural standpoint to DLA’s mission; they’re inspired by it,” Bunn said. “It’s easy to understand why, especially when it comes to helping their fellow citizens and making an impact closer to home.”