By Sgt. 1st Class Christopher DeHartFebruary 11, 2013
CAMP BULLIS, Texas - Most people have little, if anything, to look forward to during hurricane season; in Southern Texas especially, as well as many similar regions around the country and North America, hurricanes cause massive damage and literally uproot people's lives when they strike.
Joint Task Force-51, which serves as U.S. Army North's rapidly deployable command post, has a large stake in hurricane season; the joint task force conducted a hurricane response exercise Feb. 4-8 at Camp Bullis.
This training event marked the first official exercises of 2013 for JTF-51; it focused on readiness for hurricane season, which traditionally begins in June. The training provided the participants an opportunity to etch out details that may prove critical in the event of an actual disaster response.
It is the team's responsibility to provide military support to the primary federal agency when conducting Defense Support of Civil Authority operations when called upon. The members will normally work with numerous agencies, such as FEMA, DHS, state law enforcement and emergency response units, National Guard and Reserve units, and other federal, state and local groups that provide aid and assistance during the stressful and often time-sensitive events.
They are not the cavalry riding in to save the day, but they provide support to the state and federal agencies and structures that provide essential support to save lives and mitigate loss of life and limb and preserve property and to provide resources during and after a hurricane or similar event.
"We are bringing a core group of people, a contingency command post, and we are augmented by sustainment, aviation, operations and medical forces," said Col. David Draeger, chief of staff for JTF-51. "We bring them all together in order to support local, state and other federal agencies in saving lives and performing life-sustaining missions for the people in the affected areas."
The Soldiers and their civilian partners are committed to the tasks and to answering the needs of the communities involved during times of great stress -- especially those caused by hurricanes, said Draeger, who has extensive civilian law enforcement experience in addition to his 30-year career as a military police officer in the Army.
The exercises are conducted throughout the year, at various times and in different capacities. Hurricanes are one of the most probable threats the unit prepares for. However, other natural and man-made disasters rank up there as well, such as earthquakes, tropical storms and potential terrorist attacks. As such, the team trains accordingly.
Less than 75 people make up the core element of JTF-51, which can grow substantially with augmentations from U.S. Army North depending on its mission requirements. The military and civilian members of the core group said they look forward to training opportunities such as this.
"I think the best part of the HURREX is it brings in all the players who support JTF-51 into a safe environment," said Lt. Col. Andrew Novitske, who works in the J35 Operations section. "Here, they are free to try new things, invent new ways to do things, work on sustaining what does work and no one gets hurt if mistakes are made. It's better to do this here than to try it on the fly during the real thing."
Exercises such as this may occasionally be thought of as "old hat" to some of the team's veterans.
This misconception is quickly laid to rest because with the many new faces this year, they also bring a new perspective, and new ideas, on how to improve coordination and operations.
"No exercise is ever really the same, but you don't always get practice at what you do here on the JTF like in your regular job," said Sgt. 1st Class Adrian Lambert, fusion cell team leader, and a native of Fort Worth. "The fusion cell is a first for us. Our goal is to create critical infrastructure packages for each mission assignment that comes up during this kind of event.
"This will be our first time coming together as a group, but a first time running through things is always going to have some hiccups. As we build packets, we are learning better how to work together."
The fusion cell is almost like a mini-JTF in that it has individuals from each of the joint task force's staff sections in addition to participants from subordinate units. The team combines their skills and knowledge to identify needs and resources in a timely fashion to expedite assistance to those in need.
Among those working with Lambert was 2nd Lt. Cody Queen, who serves with the 302nd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade out of Westover Air Force Base, Mass. Queen has an intelligence background similar to Lambert.
"This is the first exercise for this type of unit and, so far, we have found a good way to build these (critical infrastructure) packets and come up with new ways to place assets to support the (mission assignment) task orders," said Queen, a native of Albany, N.Y. "We are a little bit of everything, but it forces us to think outside the box."
Numerous ideas on how to improve operations were discussed throughout the exercise. One of these included the conducting commander's update briefings outside the Joint Operations Cell. The advantage to changing the venue is that regular operations could continue unabated. In effect, it more realistically simulates how the process would actually go if the participants were while involved in a real-world mission.
"It was a good opportunity to integrate them and work together with our augmentees. We were able to identify areas to improve involving actual operations with each other and toward the mission," said Lt. Col. Jared Erickson, the J3 chief of operations, who was participating for the first time.
After the weeklong exercise wrapped up and after-action reviews were complete, the task force's senior enlisted leader spoke of the significance of training events such as this.
"Yes, we can save 500 lives, maybe. But, if we take this seriously and do what we need to, we may be able to save 5,000 instead," said Sgt. Maj. Jaime Garza Jr., JTF-51. "Every day we have to shoot to be better. This isn't about going overseas and changing someone else's way of life -- it's about preserving ours."