In his first interview since taking command on 29 June, Major General Tracy A. Thompson spoke in length about priorities, soldier readiness, support to the ASCCs, lessons learned, role models and much more. A lawyer by profession, Maj. Gen. Thompson was interviewed for this piece during his travels to the Pacific for the Ulchi Freedom Guardian Exercise, where approximately 80 Soldiers from the Deployable Command Post and TEC-Main deployed to Korea, Japan and Hawaii to provide engineering expertise and logistical support functions to US Army Pacific, US Forces Korea and Eighth Army. -- CPT Maryjane Falefa Porter, Public Affairs Officer, 412th Theater Engineer Command.
Army Reserve two-star commander talks priorities, theater support, way forward for the 412th TEC
In his first interview since taking command on 29 June, Major General Tracy A. Thompson spoke in length about priorities, soldier readiness, relevance and support to the ASCCs, lessons learned, role models and much more. A lawyer by profession, Maj. Gen. Thompson was interviewed for this piece during his travels to the Pacific for the Ulchi Freedom Guardian Exercise, where approximately 80 Soldiers from the Deployable Command Post and TEC-Main deployed to Korea, Japan and Hawaii to provide engineering expertise and logistical support functions to US Army Pacific, US Forces Korea and Eighth Army. -- CPT Maryjane Falefa Porter, Public Affairs Officer, 412th TEC
You have 13,000 Soldiers and subordinate units spread out in 20 states, available to accomplish a complexity of missions here at the home front and overseas. What priorities are being emphasized to your staff to ensure the job gets done?
MG Thompson: For one, we have to support our subordinate commands, to prepare them to fight and deploy as operational and functional commands. We also have to support the Army Service Component Commands to which we are aligned, namely U.S. Army Pacific, U.S. Army Europe and U.S. Army Africa. Thirdly, as a TEC headquarters, we have to train to deploy ourselves and to perform our essential tasks in the theater where we are deployed, including performing mission command over the units that are assigned to us and offering engineering expertise to the theater commander.
Where do you see this command three years from now?
MG Thompson: For it to be the best operational and functional command in USARC. And the way we determine that is by measuring how much we improve our readiness indicators -- the metrics. They measure what gets us to the fight. Those metrics are what allow us to get out the door and to the fight, like medical readiness, dental readiness, duty qualification, and professional schooling. Evaluations count, too, because they lead to on-time promotions and Soldiers filling the right grades. At the breakout of the last war, we lost almost a third of our people because they were not medically ready. We thought we had these great teams built, and we started to mobilize them and realized large numbers of them had medical issues that couldn't be fixed, or that couldn't be fixed in time to deploy with their units. So from a readiness perspective, the goal is for the 412th TEC to be the best in the U.S. Army Reserve, which means we are trained to do our core missions better than our counterparts, and we are the most ready from all the other metrics standpoints -- so that when mobilized, all those units mobilize just as they trained.
In 2009, the 412th TEC went from being an engineer command (ENCOM) to a 'theater' engineer command. How did that change the way of doing business for the unit?
MG Thompson: A few big things. First of all, the ENCOM didn't have anything like the mission command structure we have today. Back then it was responsible for about 500-600 soldiers, much of it in the headquarters itself, and existed primarily in an engineering expertise role. In that design, it had a lot of seasoned engineer expertise within it. However, when it became a theater engineer command, the size of the headquarters was greatly reduced (along with its built- in engineer expertise), and it assumed mission command of almost 13,000 subordinate soldiers and their units. It also made the TEC very expeditionary -- with the creation of two deployable command posts. It was created during Army Transformation, which means it also gave the TEC access to many sets of additional capabilities through a concept called "modularity." So the job of the theater engineer didn't change much, which is to provide engineer expertise and advice to the theater commander, but the ability of the TEC to provide mission command to the Engineer units in their theater, and to offer them engineer expertise from within our formation and through reach-back to resources at home or elsewhere, expanded greatly.
Through theater security cooperation, what does a Reserve force like the engineers bring to the table to support the combatant commanders in those regions?
In our peace time role, we have responsibility for three ASCCs -- U.S. Army Pacific, U.S. Army Europe and U.S. Army Africa. Through theater security cooperation, combatant commands are trying to promote peace and stability by doing things like improving people's access to basic necessities like clean water, shelter, education and medical care. As a Reserve force and with our unique capability and expertise, this is where we come in to support combatant commanders when they request our assistance. We can help design and build schools, roads and clinics, as a few examples. An example of how we might provide that support starts with a COCOM and its ASCC identifying that type of work as a priority. Then their staff looks at what resources they have to design and build (for example) a farm-to-market road. For any resource shortfalls, we try to fill that gap with Reserve Component Engineers.
Army Reserve Engagement Cells (AREC) or Army Reserve Engagement Team (ARET) is a fairly new concept. How will that benefit the 412th and the Army Reserve as whole?
MG Thompson: It should be a great benefit to the ASCCs and to the Army Reserve as a whole. In the past, there were often many different ways combatant command (COCOM) commanders might use Reserve units to fill the gap between their need and their internal capability. Lieutenant General Jeffrey Talley, Chief of Army Reserve and Commanding General, U.S. Army Reserve Command, created a Cell or Team at each Army Service Component Command (ASCC) within every COCOM, to be the one- stop-shop for accessing Reserve capability and expertise. The Pacific Theater is standing up the first full Cell, which will eventually have a brigadier general leading it, and which already has a full-time officer as our Engineer liaison, a great officer named CPT Gary Rabatin. So if an engineering need comes up, he will try to fill it. First he tries to find a solution close to home in the Pacific, because that's the smartest, least expensive thing to do. The Army Reserve has the 9th MSC in Hawaii assigned to USARPAC, and it has organic Army Reserve units of all different types, including engineers. If the 9th MSC can't fulfill the need, then they come to us. The Pacific is our area of responsibility as a theater engineer command. If we don't have a capability or capacity, he will then go to the 416th TEC and then to the Army National Guard. The AREC is there to help plan fill those USARPAC gaps, and the other ARECs and ARETs at the other ASCCs have the same mission -- the "one-stop-shop" for USAR capabilities access.
It will make the process much more efficient than in years past.
The ARFORGEN five-year cycle requires units to continuously train and prepare for deployment, yet when mobilized they are held up at a Mob site for additional weeks, months before going out the door. Your thoughts on this process.
MG Thompson: From a risk perspective, we don't think we can afford the time to continue with the old model of long periods of post-mobilization training, where something kicks off like Iraqi freedom and we notify unit to go the Mob station, train up for 45 days, hop on an airplane while your stuff is on a ship floating over there, and 60 days later you're there. So much of our active fighting force depends on the Reserve Component, that we just don't think we'll have the luxury of that time frame for much of the force. So the question becomes how to shorten that time frame. First Army is working on several great concepts to shorten this process. Also, we have to work the concept from both the training and readiness end (getting our metrics in order) and eventually from a policy end to change some of the mobilization policies. In my opinion, the ideal end state would be that units have trained through a readiness cycle (similar to ARFORGEN), and they are well-manned and medically ready to a point where they might be able to mobilize and actually deploy on very short notice -- perhaps even be mobilized while on a training mission in their available year if the need arose. Let's say they're a horizontal engineer unit on annual training in Guam building a runway, and some big event kicked off somewhere else in the Pacific theater. Think how much more quickly they could get to the fight if the ASCC commander could just designate that unit to mobilize because they are already there as a unit, with an equipment set, having met the health and deployability standards and that complete set (Soldiers & equipment) is already forward deployed. So let's have them do some minimal additional training and get them up to where the combatant commander requires to them be and get them on a plane. And there you've already cut several weeks off of the old paradigm. It's just a concept at this point.
What advantage do we bring to the fight as Army Reserve Soldiers?
MG Thompson: One of the advantages that we bring to the table as an Army Reserve is…as I often say, a colonel isn't just a colonel. A colonel or master sergeant might have 25 years of service as an Army engineer, but as a civilian, they might have 25 years as a city planner or town utilities expert. And think of the expertise that those Soldiers can bring to bear, whether the TEC is deployed to assist in a disaster or a war. That master sergeant or colonel, when you combine their vast experience in uniform and as civilians, would be invaluable in adding to the theater commander's ability to solve the difficult engineering problems that arise in disaster relief or war. That's why I often say a colonel isn't just a colonel in the Reserve or Guard, as often they are much more. Those are the kind of things that we bring to the table to support the theater commands, not just what we bring on a MTOE or in a paragraph or line number for the TEC.
Based on our experiences from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what are some lessons learned to help shape the way forward for the command?
MG Thompson: One of the biggest problems we struggle with is simple individual readiness. Virtually all of these units have proved that they will eventually arrive in theater and do their mission extremely well. That's a lesson we've all learned. We are good at our core missions in the Army Reserve. Where we continually struggle is getting to the fight. The thing that hurt us in OIF and OEF is getting there -- getting the team that you're training with to the fight -- because commanders often make the same mistakes I did as a captain. As a captain, I thought "I'm a combat engineer and all this admin stuff can wait until I mobilize." I thought if I just trained my team to fight and build bridges and live to fight another day, I had done my job. I was too naïve to realize this was totally wrong. Because if I had been mobilized, it's likely that about one in every three would not have gone with me. That's the average of how many fell out medically at the start of OIF. So I thought I had trained the perfect team, but what kind of a team is it if I left 1/3 of them at home? I left company command in 1994, so I did not have to learn that lesson the hard way. So build your team while keeping all your readiness requirements as high as you possibly can.
Overseas you're aligned to support theaters of operation in the Pacific, Europe and Africa. In the U.S. you have subordinate units in 20 states, from Florida to New Hampshire, How do you stay visible, engaged given the vast footprint you're working with?
MG Thompson: I'm nowhere near where I want to be. You have to prioritize. Regarding our own units, I haven't had nearly enough time to visit as I would like. Since taking command, most of my time has been taken up by higher command requirements and Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG), but that will change. I will get to visit the first units in early September in West Virginia, when I will visit the 458th EN BN (411th EN BDE). Also, regarding ASCC support, I've only been to the Pacific during UFG so far. I've met with GEN Vincent Brooks, commanding general, U.S. Army Pacific, and LTG Bernard Champoux, commanding general, Eighth Army. I've also met with key staff for both those commanders, including their engineers. I've also spoken by phone with MG Mark McQueen, deputy commanding general for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, US Army Europe, but I've got to get out there and do the same thing I've done in the Pacific, which is to talk to the commanders and key leaders and get down to the engineers and find out what their needs are, tell them what we capabilities we have because they often don't know, and to let them know that they are our customers and that we're customer friendly.
You're an attorney by profession in the civilian world. How does that play into your thought process, decision-making as a military commander?
MG Thompson: I would hope that it makes me deliberative but not slower in my decision making. I hope it makes me think through issues and problems in a thoughtful way. I think it helps me make decisions in a timely manner also, since there is always a deadline looming as a lawyer. It has also taught me there are two (or more) sides to every story, so don't judge too quickly.
How can we make greater utilization of our Reserve units as an operational force?
MG Thompson: It's a balancing act. ASCCs will have many requirements and we will have many demand signals, and we will have to synchronize the right units to fill these needs. In the ARFORGEN five-year cycle, for example, units in their third and fourth years (TR1 and TR2) have collective training requirements. TR1 is normally a WAREX or something like it and TR2 is CSTX or CTC. Those are the training events in the last two years before the available year designed to get the units in their highest states of readiness. For this discussion -- TEC support to our customers - that leaves three other years. The available year, the year a unit can be used for a deployed mission, whether it's Afghanistan or a Kuwait deployment or a contingency. Theoretically, theater security cooperation deployment is an option if there is funding. Those are examples of available year missions. Currently, most units are not utilized by a contingency in their "available" year, which makes them a good candidate for ASCC support. Reset is the next year, TR1 is next. Those are all in the pool of units that we can potentially use to satisfy these ASCC demand signals. However, there are demand signals from other places. USACE would like us to do certain troop construction portions on some of its missions. Army installations have construction missions with limited budgets, and those installations would like us to do troop construction for them. Examples include roads, buildings, rehabs for buildings, and other similar work. So we can't put all of our units into the category of ASCC support, although ASCC support is in the top of our three main TEC missions, as I discussed above, so they will receive priority. It will be the G3's job to work with the ARECs and ARETs, and with USACE and the installations to prioritize all these demand signals. For the ones we can't fill, we will work with the 416th TEC to try and get their units to fill the requirements, and after that, with the National Guard. Whether we satisfy all those demand signals internally, or with our brothers and sisters in the 416th TEC and National Guard, our simple goal will be to meet all their Engineer needs. With respect to support from the 412th TEC, we hope to do that with units drawn mostly from those in the ARFORGEN years of Available, Reset and TR1.
Who are your role models?
MG Thompson: One of my big military role models is retired General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. In my opinion, he may be our modern day Eisenhower. In the Gulf War, he was able to manage this huge mission, where he had these gigantic egos, and the politics that went in to it -- first helping to build a large coalition of support and getting them to work together, keeping our own services working together through the planning and the attack, then managing all those forces and egos when we had to quit after 96 hours. He was able to deftly juggle these different forces and still accomplish that mission, keeping everybody reasonably happy. He's very Eisenhower-esque. I thought he was just a magician at it and always kept his cool, at least in public. I have nothing but deep admiration for him. More recently, Major General David Conboy, who was a really a good mentor for me as a general officer, because although I felt I had learned a lot and knew my way around, every time he pushed you, you came away having learned something. And I couldn't say that for many people I had worked for. And he's the guy who lives the Army values, not only talks the talk but walks it as well.
What are your expectations of your staff and the 13,000 Soldiers under your command?
MG Thompson: I really want to build a culture of excellence. With that said, professionalism as our watch word is what I expect from everyone, because it's universal no matter what your job or rank is. It means different things in each rank, so of course I wouldn't expect the same knowledge base, briefing abilities, or the ability to dive into a mission and produce a product from a specialist as I would a master sergeant, or from a lieutenant as I would a major. But I would expect the same dedication and drive going after a mission at each level and the same desire to produce a great result at each level. Professionalism isn't asking anyone to do something that's beyond their ability, doesn't mean working an 18-hour day, and doesn't mean something superhuman. It just means knowing your job well and doing it with skill and honor and dignity, and conducting yourself with those things in mind -- on the job and off duty. So when we talk about things like sexual harassment, things that should be a given -- professionals do not act that way. Show up and do a really good job, get to know your job and execute it skillfully. Honor the job and the uniform and those who serve with you by treating others the way you would want to be treated, and the way you would want your daughter or son to be treated. That shouldn't be too hard for anyone to do.
Physical fitness continues to be a struggle for many in the military. What keeps fitness as priority on your plate?
MG Thompson: Our greatest struggle with fitness is that in the U.S. we're surrounded by people who don't want to make an effort to stay fit because it's hard. And they don't want to eat right because our portions are too big, and there's too much fat, salt and sugar in our diet, all of those things which I love, by the way. And so I don't have very good will power to not eat more than I should, just like most of America.So I always counter that by exercising. I'm not a great fan of exercise, but I exercise so that I don't get fat, so I can do activities with my family (now and in the future), pass the APFT and set a good example for my soldiers. It goes back to professionalism. In the short term, a Soldier should ask themselves how professional do they want to be -- to make rank, to set the example, to meet and exceed the standard - because part of being professional is looking like a fit soldier. More importantly, in the long term, everyone should ask themselves how badly they want to run on the beach with their grandchildren and enjoy life into their old age. Soldiers should think about the cumulative effect of being overweight and unfit.
What keeps you awake at night?
MG Thompson: Overall, young commanders out there make the same mistakes I made as a company commander, where I dismissed what we now call the metrics as an administrative hassle when it really is the key what opens the door for you to mobilize as you trained. As I said earlier, you can train your unit to be the best road builders, firefighters, bridge builders, or whatever their core mission is, but if you lose a third of them before you get to the war, you've really missed the mark. This is not the 20th century anymore, this is the 21st century. The good news is that there is a magic solution for how you can do both these things -- train hard on your core mission and complete all the readiness requirements: The solution is our First Line Leaders. Until they buy into that, until the light bulb goes on, it'll be a struggle. But once a few of them start using the 21st Century version of a "job book" -- it can be an app on a smart phone or a few sheets in a notebook -- other leaders will see how effective it is, and they will start using it, too. I guarantee it.
You had a chance to meet and discuss pertinent issues with GEN Brooks, LTG Champoux, BG Kim and others in your travels to Korea and Hawaii during UFG. What was the biggest take away for you?
MG Thompson: The degree to which they consider the Army Reserve integral to the fight and how they've essentially embraced that. They all have concerns about important things like how quickly we can get there, how we might be able to get more there more quickly, which are great questions and for me to help answer. But I think it's in great contrast to where we would've been before the era of OIF and OEF, where I think you might have found a much cooler reception to those ideas of reserve components playing this integral and deeper role in the fight. The bottom line is they just couldn't perform these missions without the reserve components, all the reserve components.
What are your biggest pet peeves?
MG Thompson: When someone doesn't have the courage to counsel someone who is not meeting the requirements -- not meeting the standard. I understand it, because it's the hardest thing in human nature. Most of us in the Army are decent people, and that's why we're so bad at doing negative counseling. Because it's hard to look someone in the eye and say "you don't meet the standard. I ask for A and you hand me B, C and D. Sometimes no one has ever told you you're bad because no one has had the courage to do it, and you really are not very good. And that's just the bottom line." Think about how hard that is to do, and -- luckily -- how rarely we practice it. But we need to do it when it's necessary, even though the person on the other end will be defensive at first and may even file a complaint against us. Another big one is unprofessionalism. Take for instance sexual harassment. We're supposed to be about professionalism and being professionals, and where does that type of behavior enter into the equation anywhere. Even the lighter stuff, I can't tell you how many times I've seen an investigation where some senior person, their excuse is I was just telling a joke, I was just repeating a joke, or I was just forwarding a joke that had been sent to me by a friend. And I thought to myself, where is your sense of being a pro, because that is not professional for us to do that, not ever, not in your setting as a uniformed Soldier.