FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Colonel Jeremy D. Bell expected his job to put his leadership skills to the test when he assumed command of U.S. Army Garrison Fort Campbell in July 2019. What the installation would face over the next two years was beyond anyone’s imagination.
From the Army’s housing crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bell’s tenure has been marked by high-pressure events. Through each of them, he provided steadfast leadership while working alongside garrison employees to achieve the senior commander’s goals: improving housing, enhancing the installation’s power projection capabilities, preparing the installation for the future and building an atmosphere of trust and ownership in the Garrison workforce.
As he prepares to relinquish command to Col. Andrew Q. Jordan during a ceremony June 28, Bell said he hopes to be remembered as a leader who protected, enabled and empowered his workforce to succeed on all fronts.
“I truly love the workforce and what they do for this installation, for our units and for our community,” he said.
“In a lot of ways, the Garrison’s work is just expected to happen, and it happens largely behind the scenes. The Garrison employees are the unsung heroes of Fort Campbell and the heart and soul of what this installation stands for, now and in the future.”
Foundation of trust
Bell’s leadership strategy grew out of years of experience as a Special Forces officer, including his time commanding 1st Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) from 2015-2017. He said it was important that each directorate felt empowered to take ownership of their work.
“In Special Forces, you’re supposed to be fully ready to execute a mission, and then you fly off and execute that mission many times without a command structure over the top of you,” he said. “There is no looking to your left or right and saying ‘who can do this’ ... and that’s why I focused so much on self-reliance and ownership. That’s what I brought into garrison command and why I decided on the command approach that I did.”
From the first day Bell took command, he gave every garrison employee a written outline of that approach, which he calls his “BE” slide: a foundation of trust, an ownership mindset and a focus on supporting our proactive and creative problem-solvers at every level who are true professionals at what they do.
“He role modeled that beyond belief,” said Randy Durian, deputy director, Fort Campbell Directorate of Emergency Services. “When you get something like that in writing and the garrison commander says that, it arms his workforce and his unit with an accountability mechanism to see if he’s going to command and lead that way. I can tell you he did.”
Bell said employees across the garrison appreciated his “powering down” mindset, which allowed them plenty of opportunities for innovation.
“They have to trust that I have their best interests in mind, and I have to trust that they’re going to be professionals that show up to work every day and proactively solve problems,” he said. “It’s about giving them the flexibility, the time and the resourcing that they need to be able to do their job day in and day out, but when something goes wrong or there’s something difficult that needs to be done, I have to protect them and support them as well.”
Protecting the workforce became even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Bell lead the garrison through multiple emergency response efforts.
“I think most would characterize this time as a period of consistent crisis for the garrison to manage,” he said. “It started with the housing crisis, then you moved into a water contamination crisis with a groundhog in our water supply, then we had a severe windstorm followed by COVID-19.”
There were also multiple isolated housing-related crises including the lead-based paint and ceiling collapses.
Bell said he focused on remaining calm in order to effectively lead through each crisis, and he used advice from the experts on the installation to develop strategies and solutions.
“We would not have been as successful during those crises without Col. Bell being there with us along the way,” said Brad Curvin, construction control representative, DPW. “He managed those events professionally, he relied on us as the subject matter experts to do what we needed to do to resolve the issues and he provided guidance along the way as he needed to. His calm demeanor and leadership was a breath of fresh air.”
Those same skills and traits guided Bell’s response to COVID-19 from the pandemic’s earliest stages.
“COVID-19 was the big surprise of the command,” he said. “Everyone on the installation side saw this coming well before the bulk of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, so the first part was about preparing the installation for what was about to happen.”
Since overseas installations had already experienced the virus’s initial impact, networking with them was an important part of boosting Fort Campbell’s readiness and preparation.
“We did it differently than most,” Bell said. “We created a COVID-19 task force which brought together the units, the medical capability and the garrison all under one roof, and it worked very effectively. When you talk about, ‘what does Fort Campbell and the 101st do well?’ We just seem to plan, prepare and execute very well in contingency and emergency situations.”
Bell also hosted nearly 40 COVID-19 town halls to keep the community informed about the threat and set expectations for Soldiers, Families and the civilian workforce. Those meetings covered topics ranging from curtailment of post operations to COVID safety measures to the return of post services.
The garrison’s efforts helped prepare Fort Campbell to move out of the COVID-19 posture quicker than many installations and facilitate several major unit deployments, and Bell said the community is well-positioned to overcome the pandemic.
“We’re at the lowest number of active cases that we’ve seen in over a year, and our ability to monitor, test and treat were never in question throughout the whole of the pandemic,” he said. “The other thing that’s important to note is the garrison functions never stopped during COVID-19, and that took a lot of teamwork and dedicated support from the civilian workforce.”
Workers spent much of the pandemic adapting their operations to new health and safety guidelines adopting Bell’s personal philosophy that crisis breeds innovation.
“I think what helped us in COVID-19 was doing things in a more distributive way,” Bell said. “Not always having to bring leaders and decision-makers together, but using virtual means. In some cases, some organization achieved greater efficiency by teleworking.
Other crisis situations the garrison faced demonstrated a strong sense of teamwork among the workforce.
“There’s no simple problem in a garrison,” Bell said. “Even something considered a very Directorate of Public Works-centric water contamination issue required all of DPW, it required DES to get involved to secure sites and it required units on this installation to provide support where they could. That’s what Fort Campbell does very well: we work together to solve complex problems.”
Building a better community
During his tenure, Bell also focused on improving the Fort Campbell experience for Soldiers and Families.
“Aligning my goals with the senior commander’s was the first step,” he said. “Tangibly ... it was about getting new housing for junior enlisted Soldiers and improving our 1st Brigade Combat Team VOLAR barracks, it was about sustaining our airfields and rail capability, improving where we could, and setting this installation up for the future.”
According to Bell, the housing effort saw the most progress over the last two years thanks to an $87.4 million investment from Lendlease, the U.S. Army’s privatized housing partner. Fort Campbell is receiving an additional $235 million as part of a larger investment Lendlease negotiated with the Army.
In total, those investments are expected to fund nearly 600 new homes, more than 600 renovations and the demolition of 400-500 outdated homes on the installation and reflect an Army-wide initiative to provide safe, quality housing for our Soldiers and their Families.
“Col. Bell arrived at Fort Campbell just as the Army entered into a ‘housing crisis,’ said Ted Reece, chief, Housing Division, DPW. “His leadership over the last two years is one reason Fort Campbell was the recipient of additional funding to improve the quality of our housing inventory. He has advocated for safe and quality homes and helped the Army move from a crisis to a sustained housing campaign.”
Facilitating a more convenient experience for Soldiers and Families living on post was another of Bell’s priorities, and he said the Digital Garrison app and Army Maintenance Application launched during his tenure go hand-in-hand with that effort.
“Fort Campbell was chosen to be the pilot for both applications, and they change how we do business,” Bell said. “Whereas communication was distributed over a number of different mechanisms on this installation, we’re now consolidating it into one place called the Digital Garrison app. It’s the way the installation will communicate with its community, now and into the future.”
Digital Garrison is a one-stop shop for daily installation updates, ranging from gate and facility hours to traffic and weather alerts. The app recently surpassed 10,000 downloads at Fort Campbell.
“Our challenge is to keep the information that’s on there updated and continually evolve to make sure our community has the access to information they actually want. By hitting 10,000 downloads, we far surpassed most installations in the Army.”
The Army Maintenance Application addresses concerns in barracks and installation-wide.
“An individual can essentially use this app to take a picture and write a few words about what’s wrong in a building,” Bell said. “That goes directly to a DPW worker, who then processes it and gets a work crew out there, so it cuts out a lot of the issues in our maintenance program as well.”
Bell also continued Fort Campbell’s long-term effort to eliminate World War II era wood structures an effort most visibly demonstrated when the iconic T-39 building was demolished in April 2020. Over his two-year tenure, the effort cleared more than 1.4 million square feet.
“Over the last five years, we’ve consolidated functions into buildings that are either on this installation or ones we’re going to build,” he said. “If you look at my legacy, most people would say I have a war on World War II wood, and that’s true because they’re not efficient, they’re expensive to maintain and bring up to modern standards.”
Bell’s next assignment will take him to the Pentagon to work for the G-3/5/7, which is responsible for planning, coordinating, synchronizing and executing pre- and post-mobilization training and validation of the Army’s Reserve Component forces in the U.S.