Director who led DLA support for Iraq surge to join Hall of Fame

By Beth Reece

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Retired Navy Vice Adm. Al Thompson had been commander of then-Defense Supply Center Columbus for only five days on the morning of 9/11. He was in the middle of “welcome” orientations with key staff when a messenger slipped into the room and whispered in his ear, “Sir you’re needed in the command center.” The mission he was responsible for was about to expand. 

“It became clear shortly afterward that there would be significant combat operations in the Middle East, so we became completely focused on gearing up to support those operations and anticipating what the material requirements would be,” he said. 

Seven years later, as director of the Defense Logistics Agency, Thompson oversaw the return or disposal of that same equipment while simultaneously leading the surge of equipment for an additional 30,000 troops deploying to Afghanistan. 

Thompson will be inducted into the DLA Hall of Fame Sept. 20 for being “truly the right DLA leader at the right time,” said DLA Vice Director Ted Case.

Warfighter support was a focal point of Thompson’s tenure as DLA director. Spare parts for the all-terrain version of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, known as M-ATVs, were so critical that Thompson led a group of DLA officials to the manufacturing site to create a sustainment plan.

“We met with the president of Oshkosh and went through our contracts to make sure that when M-ATVs began deploying to Afghanistan, we had parts support already synchronized,” he said. 

Thompson also oversaw the massive shift of cargo from DLA’s commercial supply line to the Northern Distribution Network, a series of rail, water and road links enabling the transport of goods to U.S. and NATO troops serving in Afghanistan. Nearly 80 percent of the cargo that passed through the NDN was DLA material, and Thompson built strong partnerships with military and U.S. Transportation Command officials to reduce the time and cost of supplying troops via the NDN. 

The demands of Thompson’s time were equally driven by declining budgets, and he initiated the agency’s long-term campaign to reduce costs. “The cost of supporting the U.S. Armed Forces shouldn’t cost a penny more than is absolutely necessary,” he repeatedly told employees during town hall meetings. And with his emphasis on negotiating reduced prices with commercial vendors, DLA saved nearly $300 million in fiscal 2011. 

“He has driven us to pursue additional, significant cost-saving options, including under the department’s efficiency reviews to identify cross-department inventory, warehousing and logistics information systems management savings,” previous DLA Vice Director Mae DeVincentis said upon Thompson’s retirement. 

Many of the results of Base Realignment and Closure 2005 decisions also occurred during Thompson’s three years as director. He ensured effective integration of procurement and industrial support activities previously handled by the services as DLA took on 50 new operating sites and nearly 6,000 employees from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. DLA sales grew by $10 billion over 3 years and were accompanied by consistently improving annual customer satisfaction surveys, according to his nomination packet.  

As Thompson visited installations during the BRAC implementation, he recognized that service members were often confused about who did what at DLA, or if DLA was even involved. The need for a new naming convention struck him at a DLA Distribution facility in Puget Sound, Washington, where he saw a sign that read “Defense Supply Center Columbus Puget Sound Detachment.” 

“First of all, if I was a DLA team member who worked there, what does that name say about what I do? Second, people don’t like names of an organization they work for [whose] geographic location is 2,000 miles away,” he said. “And frankly, it was way too many words.”

He called together a team of senior leaders from throughout the agency and gave them this mission: clean up and clarify the titles of DLA’s field activities. The initiative was named “We Are DLA,” and it united the agency’s 27,000 employees.

The movement was more powerful than Thompson envisioned.

“As I visited various field activities, working-level employees would come up to me and say they thought it was fantastic, because it made their mission clearer when they were communicating with customers,” he said.

And at major military installations where multiple DLA activities resided, leaders began working together to meet customers’ needs.

“It even got to the point where they started sending customers to other parts of DLA for support. It really brought the entire agency together as a single enterprise,” he said. 

Thompson called his two assignments at DLA highpoints of his Navy career and described working alongside other DLA leaders and those at the working level “a thrill.”

“The thing that really permeates DLA to this day is the focus on the mission and the affinity for supporting our warfighters,” he said, adding that his time at DLA was so rewarding because of its positive impact on customers.

Thompson has spent the last five years as vice president of logistics for Honeywell Technology Solutions Inc.