News | Aug. 28, 2016

Battle Ready in Battle Creek and Beyond

By Jake Joy, DLA Disposition Services

Since the mid-2000s, defense strategists have argued that future security gains will require lean, malleable fighting assets able to quickly respond to localized disasters and contingencies, rather than a continued reliance on the sprawling battlefield apparatuses historically required for protracted land wars against sovereign nations.

Defense Logistics Agency Disposition Services personnel put this philosophy into place in a three-year effort to prepare quick-reaction property disposal teams for getting ever closer to the action, wherever it might come next.

The adoption of an expeditionary mindset partly demanded the development of a “train as you fight” atmosphere, combining the agency’s civilian disposition expertise with the operational flexibility of its Reserve military force. The subsequent training evolutions have drawn uniformly positive reviews from participants, who roundly proclaim thankfulness for the opportunity to develop rapport before being thrown into a deployment together. 

“Sometimes, when deployed, [civilians] weren’t sure of what the [military logisticians] were capable of doing. And they didn’t know what expertise we had. It was like two teams working on one site,” said Victor Ambegia, site manager for DLA Disposition Services at Little Rock, Arkansas, during the first combined personnel expeditionary skills testing event in 2014. “Here, civilians are learning the [military] structure, and they are seeing our expertise. We’re both learning things. It’s great. We should train together as much as possible.”

Navy Logistics Spec. 3rd Class Adam Klosterman said the combined training prepared him to handle a “wide variety of different tasks.”

Expeditionary civilians “are very knowledgeable — eager to show you and train you in other parts of the job. The relationship works really well,” Klosterman said. “It’s good training and a good learning experience. We did a few things wrong, but we learned why it’s wrong and how to fix it.”

That kind of positive feedback led to increased standardization of combined training efforts. Now, after more than two dozen course deliveries and 500 training seat fills, these fully integrated military and civilian disposition units, with their toolboxes full of crunching, cutting and shredding tools, have been tested, retested and proclaimed ready to go.

“We’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we were, as far as working jointly,” said Craig Barrett, the DLA Disposition Services Expeditionary Site Support program manager, who played a key role in the development of the integrated deployment teams. “They’re training together in multiple events prior to deploying downrange, and we’ve already seen significant increases in efficiency, reductions in operational mishaps, and the [deployer] individual skill sets have improved significantly.”

DLA Disposition Services already was the primary deployment arm of the agency in terms of boots on the ground. Disposition deployments constituted more than the rest of DLA’s personnel deployments combined in the past decade, which simply illustrates the nature of reverse logistics work. If a vehicle or bulky piece of equipment becomes unusable or obsolete, it would hardly make sense to try and ship it back to the U.S. to auction or destroy it, Barrett noted. Disposition personnel have to go and do many of their chores where the chores need to be done. The expanded training curriculum has helped ensure that everyone sent forward is truly a do-it-all deployer, he explained.

“Our expeditionary [trainees] can perform all of the missions normally performed in a [continental United States or outside the continental U.S.] fixed site. In fact, we give them more capability than normal,” Barrett said. “They can receive property. They can process it. They can interact with customers that want to reuse property. They can donate, they can potentially sell property under scrap contracts and they can also demilitarize property on site. They can shred it, they can cut it, they can mutilate it, they can crush it. They are capable of all the DEMIL functions we normally rely on. … Overseas, every disposition location is basically a demilitarization center, unlike in the U.S. Downrange, we don’t want to have to move property multiple times. It puts the warfighter on the road, which is a problem.”

In Afghanistan, insurgent fighters relied heavily on roadside improvised explosive devices as a primary attack method in lieu of direct combat. DLA Disposition Services helped warfighters minimize convoys by tweaking its service structure and sending specialists all the way out to remote forward operating bases where they could assess needs and authorize local contractors to remove scrap.

This expeditionary mindset meant soldiers and Marines no longer had to haul scrap back along dangerous roads to rid their units of broken refrigerators and worn-out vehicles. Disposition personnel have now scrapped well over 1 billion pounds of material there. Deployed military personnel meticulously evaluate heaps of shredded wire and metal to ensure the raw materials for bomb-making don’t end up in the hands of enemies.

“Get out your hammer, bang it and throw it back in,” Environmental Protection Specialist Luis Guzman told fellow trainees during a combined testing evolution where he snagged an electronic resistor out of a bin of computers they had just mulched. “If our adversaries snagged a load of this stuff, they would pay locals to comb through it and try to find anything they could use. Even a little resistor like that, I don’t take a chance to release into theater. If they know the capacity of that, they can create an [improvised explosive device].”

These are the types of learned lessons and nuggets of wisdom shared and discussed during the now-standard combined training iterations.

While maintaining operations at roughly 100 sites in 16 countries, the activity has deployed more than 1,000 civilian and military personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hazardous and austere locations in the past decade. Those civilians and Reserve service members continue sharing their accumulated centuries of combined deployment knowledge. The policies, procedures and best practices now standardized were born of a decade of trial and error, of figuring things out on the fly and of field personnel resolving emergent issues through creative problem solving.

“We brought in field personnel who had multiple deployments, headquarters subject matter experts who had previously deployed or were at the top of their field, and we put them together for a weeklong conference to identify the individual skills and group tasks that site personnel would be expected to accomplish in theater,” Barrett said.

One major result of this institutional knowledge download took on a physical shape in the form of four Expeditionary Site Sets. With one positioned in Guam, one in Kuwait and two stashed near DLA Disposition Services headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan, the comprehensive equipment packages are ready to function as full-service disposition sites, potentially offering all the same services a soldier or airman could normally get by driving onto one of DLA’s permanent disposition locations. With portable shelters, generators, tractors and torches, these disposal-site-in-a-box capabilities were concocted to be shipped and then set up by one of six trained units at nearly any location in the world in less than 100 hours. The sets can be scaled up or down as circumstances require.

Preparing disposition personnel to arrive at a potentially austere location, construct their own worksite and immediately begin receiving and processing property required development of a broad knowledge and skill base. The path to creating that level of self-sufficiency for every team member began with a decision to school all deployers in the proper use of the Petrogen Oxygen-Fuel Torch System for performing demilitarization. Basic material handling equipment instruction also became a requirement, and trainers offered an advanced deployment course for downrange leaders to help them develop working relationships prior to a possible sudden call up. Intermediate and advanced material handling equipment courses and more formalized intermediate cutting instruction followed to help round out the physical skills and knowledge sets of team members.

Expeditionary capstone evaluation occurs in Battle Creek during the Overseas Contingency Operations Readiness Training, or OCORT, evolution held each summer for the past few years. About 60 personnel typically take part in building up an Expeditionary Site Set, demonstrating all their critical skill sets for observers, and dealing with the bonus challenges trainers like to throw their way.

It’s the contingency property disposal equivalent of the scenario-based mission rehearsal exercises that ground units have used for decades ahead of deployments to Southwest Asia and the Balkans.

Logistics Management Specialist Tim Walters is directing this year’s OCORT, and he explained that the training scenarios, or “injects,” used to test participants can range from misplaced or faulty equipment to environmental mishaps, to safety concerns like a traumatic injury or measles outbreak, severe weather or journalists and photographers showing up at the site – all of which have happened at downrange locations in the past.

“Some injects are aimed at leadership, to test their critical thinking skills,” Walters said. “Some are aimed at site personnel to see how they will respond to day-to-day challenges like a supply shortage. If equipment arrives and it is non-mission capable, how do you arrange equipment repairs? If a customer turns in a piece of equipment that is leaking oil, what do you do? We’ll bring in an environmentalist to instruct them on how to deal with it and how to report the mishap.” 

The 2016 training brought an all-new level of immersion to the exercise: real customers with real equipment turn-ins. For the very first time, participants performed equipment receipt services for nearby Army, Air Force and Marine Corps units hoping to avoid the transportation challenges of hauling defunct equipment to the nearest DLA Disposition Services location at Selfridge Air National Guard Base two hours to the east.

“[Units] were loving it. They thought it was fantastic that we were doing this,” Walters said.

Just as in the real world, exercise personnel have to know their disposition guidance and directives. One unit attempted to turn in a bulky parts washer for jet engine components, but had to be turned away. The reason? They could not certify that the equipment had been drained and purged of fluid, which is a requirement to help ensure scrap cutters don’t slice into something dangerous or explosive.

Walters said the six deployment teams, each commanded by a Navy commander or an Army lieutenant colonel, have settled into a six-year rotation, with two years of training, two years of immediate deployment availability and two years of unit reset. The goal is to now provide sustained expeditionary disposition support during two separate contingencies, humanitarian or disaster response events simultaneously, wherever they may occur.

DLA Disposition Services’ expeditionary capabilities are highlighted
in “When You Need It, Where You Need It: Expeditionary Disposal from DLA”