By Sgt. Joshua Ford, U.S. Army North PAOAugust 17, 2009
FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. -- Most Soldiers have come to expect that their next assignment will lead to another change in scenery on the eve of yet another deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.
That is not necessarily the case for the NCOs serving with the United States Army North however. For them, their mission is much closer to home because Army North is not a typical combat unit. In fact, the word "combat" isn't even part of the lexicon at their headquarters on Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
The mission of Army North is to serve as the Army Service Component Command and Joint Force Land Component Command for U.S. Northern Command. It coordinates federal military response in the land domain in support of civilian agencies for disasters including Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and high-yield Explosive, or CBRNE, incidents.
Army North works closely with state and federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as the other military services year-round.
As you can imagine, the mission is vastly different than what NCOs may have traditionally trained for and can prove to be a difficult transition for those who have spent their military careers with combat units.
For these NCOs, it is a matter of embracing the lessons learned throughout their careers and using their acquired experiences to focus on their new missions.
"If individuals fall back on the basics of the Army, such as troop-leading procedures, the military decision-making process and composite risk management, they will be able to adapt quickly and easily," said Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Balistreri, the Operational Command Post 1 and Joint Task Force 51 sergeant major. "Changing from a maneuver mindset to a Defense Support of Civil Authorities mindset is not that big of a leap.
"Many operations that are conducted in the DSCA environment are seen in both Iraq and Afghanistan," he explained. "Examples of some of those operations are humanitarian-assistance missions, medical assistance to locals and route-clearing operations."
The headquarters element of Army North is based at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Forward-deployed, Colonel-led teams, are the Defense Coordinating Elements in major cities across the continental United States. Each has an area of responsibility aligned with the 10 designated FEMA regions. Army North has less than 600 Soldiers and civilians, and slightly more than 75 of its Soldiers are NCOs.
Many practiced their skills July 31 - Aug.14, during Vibrant Response 2009 at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The exercise focused primarily on responding to CBRNE incidents and was designed to confirm the readiness and abilities of incoming forces that will fall under the CBRNE Consequence Management Force effective Oct. 1.
Staff Sgt. Brandon Hammond, a military police officer with Army North, was one of the NCOs honing his skills during the exercise, which he said afforded him new opportunities to learn and grow.
"It's a burden and an honor to work in my field," said Hammond. "Normally, a staff sergeant in the Army isn't traveling the continent, shaking hands with dignitaries, conducting meetings with local, state and/or federal entities, and providing input at the strategic level as I do here."
Of course, he added, working in a joint environment with civilian agencies also introduces new operating procedures and jargon that he had to learn in order to adapt to and accomplish his mission.
Also participating in the exercise was Staff Sgt. Darin Ingle, an operations NCO with Army North, who said playing a supporting role in missions such as this is vital and the learning curve can be steep.
"Going from a Bradley section leader at 3rd Brigade (Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division) to potentially responding to a nuclear attack in a command and control unit is a challenging transition," said Ingle, who redeployed from Iraq in February and reported to Army North in July.
"I have been serving in the Army for 10 years and have never been a part of anything like this - but that is what we, as NCOs, are supposed to do: train and adapt to the mission, no matter how much it differs from anything we have ever done."
Perhaps among the most difficult transitions for many enlisted leaders is that they may no longer have young Soldiers to lead on a day-to-day basis.
"In all of my previous units, I was given a group of Soldiers, a stack of weapons, a map, a place and told to execute my mission," said Hammond, who has served during two combat tours in Iraq. "That's what I know, and that's what I am good at."
"Coming here, I had no idea how different this sort of situation could be: I have no Soldiers and, really, very few true "peers" because of the structure of this senior command. It has allowed me to step outside my comfort zone and really use my experience in a different way at a much higher echelon."
The NCOs have essentially gone from serving as mentors for their Soldiers to serving with a senior command that has a mission unlike any other Army unit - to help the American people in a time of need. Now, instead of presenting classes on how to react to contact or establish a checkpoint, they undergo training focused on Defense Support to Civil Authorities.
NCOs continue to focus on their tactical missions, said Ingle, because they know they will eventually return to combat units. Their current mission, however, is a great opportunity to enhance their skills for when they inevitably move on to their next assignments.
"There are just other things we have to learn about being in a unique unit like U.S. Army North," said Ingle. "It is just another opportunity to learn about another realm in what all the Army does."
Hammond and Ingle both said they now have a unique opportunity to protect and serve their nation - but in a more "behind-the-scenes" way.
"Some believe that a sexy mission is working with special weapons and equipment, jumping out of airplanes and breaking down doors," said Balistreri. "I cannot think of a more important mission than protecting the citizens of our great country.
"The missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are incredibly important, with protecting our servicemembers and all others deployed as our number-one goal. Someday, hopefully very soon, the wars will be over - but protecting and defending our homeland will never go away."
During the Vibrant Response exercise, Joint Task Force 51 responded to a simulated 10-kiloton nuclear weapon that detonated in downtown Kansas City, Kan. The simulated blast would have potentially affected more than 500,000 people in Missouri and Kansas.
"Responding to something like this would be catastrophic," said Ingle, a native of Montgomery, Ala. "It would be unlike anything I could ever imagine doing."
A man-made catastrophe such as this was but one of the contingencies the exercise prepared the Army North members to respond to. At one time, such an attack would have been unthinkable to most but recent history demonstrates anything is possible. Thus, intensive training such as Vibrant Response 2009 would pay huge dividends in the future if such an event were to occur.
"ARNORTH's mission is important with the current situation we're in," said Hammond. "The mission has always existed. I think the necessity became more apparent when we were sucker punched in September 2001 by cowards."
Army North's mission is of vital importance to the nation and its Army and, as is the case with every unit in the Army, Army North depends on its NCOs to be successful.
"NCOs bring skills with them that are essential to what we do," said Maj. Gen. John Basilica, the commanding general of Army North's Operational Command Post 1 and Joint Task Force 51. "They are important because just like in combat, they provide skills for managing and guiding staff. This is important because our mission is to command and control Title 10 Forces in a complex environment.
"One piece of advice I would give to NCOs making a transition like this is not to worry - their skills and experience will serve them well."
NCOs are the backbone of the Army. It's as simple as that. A good NCO embodies adaptability and versatility in any mission.
It is never an easy transition, said Hammond and Ingle, to go to a different unit with a unique mission Soldiers are not necessarily accustomed to. However, they emphasized, "We are NCOs - it's what we do: Get the job done and make things happen."