NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba--Over the past several weeks, approximately 500 U.S. service members and government officials deployed to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in order to set up and operate a joint task force for U.S. Southern Command's biennial exercise Integrated Advance.
Integrated Advance is an exercise during which U.S. Army South and SOUTHCOM train to support the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State in a humanitarian crisis scenario. This year's exercise scenario focused on mass migration in the Caribbean with DHS as the lead agency, and DoD and the Department of State in a supporting role.U.S. Army South led the establishment of Joint Task Force-Migrant Operations and whether it would be successful depended on the coordinated effort of all agencies and service component counterparts involved. A liaison from each government agency and military branch was present inside the joint operations center to help with coordination and synchronization of information.
Coast Guard Lt. Cdr. Scot Gibson, an alien migration interdiction officer for Coast Guard District 7 in Miami, Fla. had the job of taking information from the notional ships at sea and translating it into a format that could be understood by everyone in the task force.
According to Gibson, who was a planner for IA 13 and attended the exercise in 2011, having more "boots on the ground" was an asset in order to learn how to communicate with the different components.
"It was good to have this many service members in order to simulate and validate some of the planning points, such as seeing how many bodies would actually be needed to stand up the command element," said Gibson. "In addition, having this many people allowed us to see how all the different directorates function, which is very important as an interagency operation. When you see everyone else's role, you can better understand your role in the command element and what's expected of you."
Rear Adm. Jon Matheson, Navy deputy commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, 4th Fleet, and the task force's deputy commander, said the exercise was not only an opportunity for the military to work with government agencies, but it was also an excellent opportunity for Army South personnel to work in a joint-service environment.
"Although Army South was in the lead [for the military forces], it was a true joint effort with representatives from the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard involved. It was a great chance to bring the teams together," said Matheson.
"The unique thing about the military is that even though we have different ways of approaching the mission, we can quickly adapt and compromise," said Capt. Leonardo Melendez, an F/A-18D pilot for the Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 225 based out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, San Diego, Calif., and was the task force's RFI (request for information) manager. "If we are to serve as partners, service members have to train for a variety of situations. This way, if and when something was to occur, you can be an asset because you've already practiced your role," said Melendez.
Echoing this attitude was Sgt. Shawn J. Lawson, an information systems technology specialist with the 56th Signal Battalion Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment based out of Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and one of the Soldiers providing vital communications help desk support to all the members inside the joint operations center.
"This was my first joint exercise, and my appreciation and sense of camaraderie with the other branches grew," said Lawson.
"It was a chance to see how each of the individual services work and how we come together," Lawson said. "For the most part, although we wear different uniforms, we're all the same and working toward the same goal."
According to Col. Gregory Maxton, Army South chief of current operations, the experience was particularly beneficial to the Army South team because they were able to practice the mass migration plan, bring the staff together as a team, and exercise staff procedures that need to be developed to make for a better operating and efficient staff.
"As you look at what we did as a team, we were able to deploy as a rapid reaction deployable command post and operate it for a six-day period," said Maxton, who is also the officer in charge of the Rapid Response Deployable Detachment. "Additionally, we brought our interagency partners--the DHS, Department of State, and Homeland Security Task Force-Southeast--into one unified team to look at mass migration procedures. We also brought in individuals from Navy and Air Force South as a part of the team to Guantanamo Bay. We integrated them, pulled them into our processes, and developed an efficient operating process for our staff procedures."
"If this did happen in real life, we have already developed the relationships between the multitude of organizations involved and are familiar with the various nuances that categorize each of them," said Matheson.
"We don't know the operations that will face us in the future," said Maxton. "Through this exercise we're better prepared for a mass migration, and we're better prepared for humanitarian missions as well."