Service members stand in during shutout
October 18, 2013
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- Joint Base Lewis-McChord's Directorate of Human Resources Director Mark Brown admits he was frustrated when he got the call in the middle of the Oct. 1 work day. He was instructed to immediately begin closing his military personnel division at Waller Hall because the government was shutting down.
"After the war, after the increase in the number of people we serve (at JBLM) without any increase in civilian staff, after the sequester, now I have to send people home due to the government shutdown," Brown said. "I felt really bad at a human level, and as a manager I felt awful."
Those emotions quickly turned to anxiety about the essential services that wouldn't be delivered to service members, veterans, retirees and their families when the JBLM personnel hub shut its doors. No ID card services. No DEERS updates. No processing permanent change of station orders. No retirement services.
And then Brown was contacted by I Corps Assistant Chief of Staff of Personnel Col. Michael Miller, offering help. Miller said he could immediately provide a group of active duty Soldiers from the I Corps Human Resources Operations Center, the 7th Infantry Division and the 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command to fill the customer service gaps. The 627th Force Support Squadron commander, Lt. Col. Eugene Moore, recruited two contractors from JBLM McChord Field to provide assistance as well.
Brown readily accepted, and with active duty military personnel driving operations by Oct. 2 -- the day after the government shutdown -- Waller Hall was open for limited business.
A slow start
Private First Class Christine Palmero reported for duty at Waller Hall the morning of Oct. 2. The 22nd Human Resources Company Soldier stood behind the counter of the transition center, which had been almost completely staffed by Department of Defense civilian personnel the day before.
The government shutdown severely threatened transition center operations, including processing milestone actions like retirements, medical and administrative separations and assisting reserve component personnel coming off active duty.
"Military personnel are at the transition center because they're looking for benefits and entitlements," Rick Jones, Directorate of Human Resources executive officer, said. "They're getting out and they've got plans. They've got jobs. It's just a constant cycle of service members who need to come here."
Palmero said she and other 22nd HRC personnel began collecting paperwork and answering questions, making the best of a difficult situation. The day started slow, but the process began to flow more easily. Soldier customers were surprised -- but appreciative -- to see uniformed service members behind the counter.
"They are so used to seeing civilians there," Palmero said. "But we got some comments that it was nice to see Soldiers helping Soldiers. They're grateful either way to be able to have somebody help them."
The hasty forced exit by civilian employees had left little time for training their military counterparts. But William Marczak, lead human resources assistant for transitions, said the Soldiers aced the crash course in how to accept transition packets.
"They quickly understood the job in a short time frame," Marczak said.
That also might have been because the 22nd HRC recently returned from a deployment to Kuwait where they managed the theater gateway, processing Soldiers, civilians and contractors in and out of the Middle East. Their deployment experience paralleled the roles they assumed at Waller Hall, said their platoon leader, Lt. John VendeGevel.
"From my perspective it was a perfect fit," VendeGevel said. "(The Soldiers) were very well prepared to step in and help out."
A partnership created
By Oct. 4, some services resumed at Waller Hall as JBLM commander Col. H. Charles Hodges Jr. granted a handful of selected DOD civilians exceptions to work.
But the Soldiers stayed behind the desks assisting customers and remained there when all civilian employees were allowed to return to work at Waller Hall Oct. 7. Their service has been instrumental,
Marczak said, in taking care of the 1,000 customers who visit Waller Hall during an average week.
"It's been fantastic," Marczak said. "They've eased a burden."
Jones said he hopes the partnership between civilian and military personnel will continue. A hiring freeze across the directorate compounded by the civilian employee vacancy rate and the government shutdown has shown a need for involvement of active duty personnel in JBLM's day-to-day operations. As an example, Jones said installation in- and out-processing services were turned over to an active duty military unit more than a year ago.
"We've been able to bring service members in at some positions so it's helped us," Jones said. "We've relied heavily on military assistance to keep us functioning."
Brown said he wants to work with the 22nd HRC going forward to start an embed rotation schedule, but a number of details remain to be resolved.
"Even a couple of Soldiers at a time would be great," he said.
Although they're back at work, civilian personnel understand they will not be paid until a budget is passed for Fiscal Year 2014 by the U.S. Congress. But that doesn't dampen the atmosphere of teamwork in Waller Hall.
"We couldn't have done it without the service members," Brown said. "The integration between military and civilians has been great. We're hoping for a long-term partnership."