Joint base built on relationships
August 10, 2012
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD -- How to run a city wasn't in the curriculum at West Point, or part of Col. Thomas Brittain's 23-year infantry-heavy Army experience before his arrival at Fort Lewis. Yet at the end of his three-year joint base command, as the de facto mayor of the sixth-largest city in Washington, he departed Tuesday with the satisfaction that comes with tackling a hard job, achieving key milestones and knowing that he's made an important difference to a rapidly growing military community.
Brittain relinquished command of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, one of 12 joint bases created by the 2005 Department of Defense's Base Realignment Committee. He left crediting a diverse team of professionals with the progress he oversaw.
"What made it work was relationships," Brittain said, "with the civilian workforce, with the military leadership, both the Army and the Air Force sides, and being able to identify what the problems were and being able to work through a solution set with all of the stakeholders."
Brittain arrived at Fort Lewis just in time to make it into the delivery room for the arrival of the joint base. He began in July 2009 to finalize the implementation order, putting into practice the memorandum of agreement the staff had labored over most of the previous year. It helped that from the moment he was named to command, he knew the task at hand -- to blend Army and Air Force cultures and to find efficiencies in providing installation services to customers of the new organization.
Brittain was to discern and help implement the "hows" of a huge military corporate merger. But his background made the "why" obvious.
"Installations make the tip of the spear sharp," he said Aug. 2 at a dinner in his honor. A strong joint base would eliminate distractions among the Soldiers and Airmen who deployed from it to fight and win the nation's wars.
Before he came to the Pacific Northwest, he did his homework.
"I spent time reading and understanding a lot of the doctrine and policy and I got a couple briefings from the joint base folks in D.C. before I even got here," Brittain said. "So I knew what I was walking into."
Initial Operational Capability on Feb. 1, 2010 began the first phase of the merger process with smaller Army and Air Force counterparts combining resources. Full Operational Capability arrived Oct. 1, 2010, when the larger, more complex agencies and directorates officially joined forces.
The new joint base found some early successes in savings of money and resources in combining contracts. Other services followed.
"Some of the quick wins were in the family programs, some of the Children, Youth (and Schools) Services programs, where we were able, especially with the Army Family Covenant, to offer some opportunities to our Air Force service members and their families," Brittain said. "That's been a huge benefit."
Other quality-of-life areas took more time, but in working together, the services found solutions and formed closer relationships. Early concerns about blending two disparate cultures faded as McChord and Lewis worked together to solve problems.
"We have protected unit heritage, service heritage, and we continue to honor that there are unique service needs that have to be met for the Airmen and the Air Force mission just as much as for the Soldiers and the Army mission that exists here," Brittain said.
The commander and his staff learned that the 80/20 rule applied to problem sets; four of five could be handled in the same way, branch immaterial, with one in five needing a service-specific approach.
"Eighty percent of what we do for the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines, is the same," he said. "There's about 20 percent that is unique and different based on the specific mission commanders' requirements here."
Blue- and green-suit commanders, staffs and civilians combined resources and focused together on all installation services. They developed a number systems along with the new working relationships that produced best practices for adoption by other joint bases.
"I think it's been very positive where we've seen cross-fertilization," Brittain said, "with engineers working with the Army engineers, the Air Force law enforcement working with the Army law enforcement. We've seen where we've brought the installation services together under the Army as the service provider, yet the Air Force and the Army on some unique training missions have benefited from that close relationship."
There is a lot of credit to go around, he said, but at the top of the list is the civilian workforce, a group with whom he hadn't interacted much in his previous FORSCOM and TRADOC experience. He leaves his post after three years of close contact with civilian directors and their staffs, Army and former Air Force, with an abiding respect for their contributions.
"Now I am a very firm believer in the capabilities, the continuity, the subject-matter expertise of the civilian workforce that we have," he said. "None of these successes could have been possible without the great civilian workforce. They've been in this fight just as long as our service members have.
When you talk about the 3,000 plus we have here that deliver installation services out of the total of 14,000 civilians that call JBLM home, they're some of the unsung heroes that make things happen every day. I'm very proud to have worked with them."
A new respect for civilians' contributions was not Brittain's sole personal lesson as garrison commander. As a single parent whose three children lived with him on JBLM, he was a customer of many of the services he supervised. His oldest daughter has married and moved, his middle daughter works on the installation and his son, the youngest, will graduate from high school at the end of his fourth year there -- a rare luxury for the child of an infantryman.
"They've gotten a lot of help from a lot of friends," Brittain said of his children, "and I know there were times when it may have been work on JBLM that interfered with one of the kids. But they were very understanding and very resilient, and I owe them a lot for that."
Brittain had special sentiments for those he worked closest with, whatever color the uniform.
"My Air Force deputy, Col. Valerie Hasberry, has been a very firm believer and supporter in the goodness of joint basing. My command sergeant major, Command Sgt. Maj. Matt Barnes, was a great battle buddy to have in making sure that we could run the installation ensuring that the mission customers had everything they needed.
Friends of the joint basing process weren't only local. A long list of senior Army, Air Force and DOD officials helped merge the services and set the conditions for success.
"I think in the support that we've gotten from the senior Army leadership, the previous corps commanders starting with Lt. Gen. (Charles) Jacoby, (Brig.) Gen. (Jeff) Mathis, (Maj.) Gen. (John) Johnson, Lt. Gen. (Mike) Scaparrotti, (Maj.) Gen. (Lloyd) Miles, and now (Lt.) Gen. (Robert) Brown, the senior Army leadership here on the installation has been key in giving us the flexibility, the maneuver space, to figure this thing out, coupled with the two senior Air Force commander, Col. (Kevin) Kilb and Col. (Wyn) Elder. There's been a lot of support from the Air Force from afar, from Gen. Ray Johns, the Air Mobility Command commander," Brittain said. "That general officer top cover, coupled with a strong, competent subject-matter-expert civilian workforce, the Army civilians and the Air Force blue suiters, bringing them together to deliver installation services, has been a good thing."
After three years, Brittain hopes to be remembered as someone who "tried to make a difference every day and was looking for ways to make things, systems, organizations, programs better for all of our customers."
He will remain a customer of installation services in his next job on JBLM as chief of staff of the newly arrived 7th Infantry Division headquarters.