New contingency contracting officers readying for possible deployment

By Beth Reece DLA Public Affairs

A new group of contingency contracting officers is preparing to be among the first to deploy and provide expeditionary contracting support during the initial stages of future disaster and contingency operations.

The Joint Contingency Acquisition Support Office, part of Defense Logistics Agency Logistics Operations, created the cadre of 24 contracting officers after seeking volunteers from the agency’s contracting community early this year.

“This is a group of qualified, talented contracting officers who are dedicated to deploy anywhere in the world, whenever they’re needed,” said Charmaine Camper, director of JCASO’s Expeditionary Contracting Office.

Members received initial training in July and August on three core pillars: readiness, academics, and operational and battlefield preparation. The training plan incorporated lessons learned by expeditionary contracting officers Michaella Olson and Craig Hill while they were supporting Operation United Assistance in Africa, as well as JCASO members who deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Readiness instruction covered administrative details such as passports, family care plans, life insurance, vaccines and financial plans.

“Even those who had deployment experience commented that this part of the training was something they’d never received before. These aren’t things that you can learn from a book; they’re the result of several people sharing their experiences, and every experience is going to be different,” Camper said.

What to pack was another key readiness topic. Olson described her first deployment as a contracting officer. She was a civilian working for the Navy, heading to Tonga for Pacific Partnership 2013 with five overstuffed suitcases.

“After I had to lug all five of those suitcases up three or four flights of stairs and through the airport during 36 hours’ worth of travel, I never did that again,” Olson said. She recommended carrying one bag and a backpack.

Under academics, students became familiar with the Defense Contingency Contracting Handbook, which covers subjects like contingency funding, contract oversight and foreign acquisition. Other topics included emergency acquisitions, local procurement and common-user logistics.

Though it’s fairly easy to predict what customers will need during the early phases of an operation, contracting officials often have to help fine tune those requirements, Hill said. While he was in Africa, for example, engineers issued an urgent request for nails to build Ebola treatment units because they weren’t strong enough to penetrate the hard wood they were working with.

“They knew they needed different nails, but they didn’t know how many or what size, so I had to work through those details with them,” he said. “Sometimes, when you get a customer’s requirement, you realize they haven’t thought it all the way through and you have to ask questions to get it right.”

Instruction on operational and battlefield preparation highlighted the importance of knowing who the key players are and their respective roles. Understanding J-codes and their primary functions is crucial, Camper said, as well as being aware of the various units and government agencies that are contributing to the operation.

“It’s not just a matter of being good at contracting. A large part of our work involves coordinating and synchronizing with others, so you have to know who’s who, what they bring to the table and how you tie into mission,” she said.

Being aware of cultural differences is also important, Olson added, especially when dealing with local contractors whose help is vital and can dramatically impact the mission. She and Hill advised contracting officers to reach out to U.S. State Department officials as early as possible to collect basic information such as general business rules, and do’s and don’ts, which vary from country to country.

“Embassy officials can usually do electronic fund transfers in order to pay a bill. We can actually leverage that support to do a local contract and pay locally,” Hill said. “That’s a powerful tool.”

Those who deploy in support of contingency operations or disasters must change their mindset to be successful, Camper added. In their regular jobs, DLA’s contracting officers work in garrison environments with desks, phones and other necessary tools.

“When you deploy, you’re probably going to be sleeping and working in a tent. Or you could be working in a room without a desk, with just your laptop and whatever phone we give you,” Camper told the group.

Denise Vogelei, a contracting officer for DLA Troop Support who is also a member of the new contingency contracting officer cadre, said parts of the training were surprising.

“I don’t think I understood the full depth of what I was getting myself into when I volunteered. The training not only prepared me to deploy to an austere environment, but to react quickly to mission requirements and be confident enough in my contracting skills to ensure the warfighters have what they need to succeed,” she said.

The training also broadened Vogelei’s view of what it takes to support disasters and contingencies. During Operation United Assistance, she and her team in Philadelphia conducted market research and expedited contracts for gloves.

“It was very rewarding for me to go to DLA Headquarters and meet the people we were supporting downrange. Now I can see the full circle and know that what we do here at Troop Support makes a big difference on the ground,” she said.

Contingency contracting officers have played a major role in the early stages of disaster support and contingency operations for decades. DLA has established this new capability to fill a gap in expeditionary and contingency contracting support, Camper said.

“During military operations, there’s a gap in between the phases of operation where you need people right away to start standing things up. That’s where DLA contingency contracting officers add value. We can get things started using working capital funds and then turn it over to the services,” she added.

The training will be followed by additional instruction and a field training exercise later this year.