Nobody noticed when persons unknown filtered areas across Japan, infiltrating areas such as the U.S. Army’s Camp Zama where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Japan Engineer District resides. Nobody saw them carefully planting backpacks of explosives, an improvised explosive device (IED), near predetermined targets and slinking away. Nobody said a word as explosions ripped across the country, damaging railways lines, destroying various infrastructure, and costing lives. And nobody blinked an eye as Japan Engineer District team members vacated the damaged area, packed their bags, and relocated to a place of safety outside Japan.
That’s because none of this actually happened. All these events only exist in the text of a paper held by Dave Puckett, Japan Engineer District’s Chief of the Security Plans Operations Office. Part of a tabletop exercise, an emergency drill played out kind of like a game of Dungeons & Dragons – nothing is real, it’s all pen and paper, a roll of the dice. Using that analogy, Dungeon Master Dave’s IED scenario is augmented by the work of Steve McCann, JED’s Emergency Management Program Specialist (CBRN), whose job it is to communicate ideas to the “players” around the figurative table, in this case Japan Engineer District’s Crisis Action Team.
“From the start of the contingency, we had the initial crisis. And what would we do in an initial crisis? Protect people, protect government property, protect our projects,” Puckett explains.
McCann chimes in explaining that their fake crisis has a basis in real-world events.
“We have South Korea and North Korea to our west, China to our north and also Russia to our north so there are several armies in our area of operation. We capitalized on that,” he said.
In the Puckett-McCann scenario, the reaction of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan by America’s adversaries has catapulted the region into violence. Chaos is being seeded in Japan by unfriendly actors, leading to the bomb that damaged JED headquarters, evacuation, and a convening of the players at the District’s remote Continuity of Operations Plan, or COOP, site.
For the first time in JED history, players include two Soldier augmentees from out of town. They are Maj. Johnathan Lanahan, an Army Reserve Pans Officer who flew to Japan to take part in the exercise from Columbus, Ohio, and Capt. Amanda King, an Operations Officer hailing from Houston, Texas. Both are with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pacific Ocean Division Individual Mobilization Augmentee (IMA) team. Their job is to go wherever they’re needed to go in the Pacific.
“This is the first time we’ve augmented the Security Plans Office [at JED],” Maj. Lanahan said, walking through his role in the play. “Part of this was just figuring out what our role actually was. So, really just helping them go through the crawl phase and get a baseline for future years as we go forward.”
The “crawl phase” Lanahan spoke about is exactly where the exercise exists now, in its infancy. It’s the first part of a “crawl, walk, run” plan put in motion, designed to get JED up to speed in time to integrate this yearly exercise more fully with their higher headquarters, the Pacific Ocean Division, in 2025.
“It’s pretty fun to be able to come in and start something from the beginning,” smiles Capt. King. Although she cautions, “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Puckett and McCann are aware of the challenges they're facing.
“This is the first time we’ve briefed a commanding general during an exercise we’ve done with POD. It’s also the first time we exercised with POD,” Puckett acknowledges.
Still, crawling through the machinations of safely relocating an entire U.S. Army Corps of Engineers District is not something that is handled flippantly. Shepherding not only the hundreds of millions of dollars in assets and contracts the District holds, as well as being responsible for the safe relocation of more than 500 team members, is something that needs be combed over and over again. It is a more than carefully planned operation.
“Once our employees evacuate, they have six months. After six months they either find a new job or are fired. They’re on per diem and pay for [that time] so we have to figure out what we’ve got to do about this.”
That’s when they started envisioning what a Japan Engineer District Rear Detachment might look like. A place where team members could continue to work as a District displaced, without having to make the hard decision of where to go or be gone.
“Where do we go? How do we do that? How to we create that and where do we tell our employees to go? Do we tell all our employees and families to go there, or how would that work?” Puckett pondered.
The answer to this fictitious scenario lies in the very real solutions that emerged from the global pandemic.
“What we found was that telework… worked,” said Puckett. “That concept worked, and that’s a strength. That also means that when we evacuate, we need to have our work laptops with us. That’s something new. It leads to a new discussion of adding work laptops to our evacuation checklist.” The real-world solution, just like this made-up scenario, is constantly evolving. And that’s a good thing.
“The thought is, we’ll determine our lessons learned, and then apply those lessons learned into the “walk phase” for next year,” Puckett said.
McCann points out that for Japan Engineer District members, the key to resiliency remains the same whether in the Puckett-McCann scenario, a natural emergency, or any circumstance seen or unforeseen.
“Just have situational awareness, practice the plans that are in place, and don’t be complacent.”