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A junior officer's guide to DSCA.

A side from foreign combat deployments, some of the most stressful and demanding situations confronted by a junior Army National Guard officer involve the defense support of civil authorities (DSCA). These operations, which usually occur immediately following major disasters or traumatic events, require that junior leaders be mentally nimble, effective, and adept at using noncommissioned officers (NCOs) to implement change in the operational environment. The purpose of this article is to prepare young lieutenants-particularly those in the National Guard--for the possibility of DSCA operations.

Oftentimes, junior National Guard Soldiers become the unsung heroes of a natural disaster recovery or a response to a terrorist attack or other traumatic event. As part-time Soldiers and full-time leaders, National Guard officers and NCOs have the same training and duty responsibilities as their Regular Army counterparts. However, they have an additional constraint; they do not see troops on a daily basis. When disasters occur, state governors call upon the National Guard to bring a semblance of order to the chaos. This responsibility generally falls on the shoulders of the lieutenants. These lieutenants are expected to focus their training and implement the DSCA plans that the states have created through decades of trial and error. This article discusses how junior officers can prepare themselves and their troops for DSCA operations, how they should work within a state emergency management agency chain of command, and what pressures they might face as leaders operating in the aftermath of a disaster.

Fundamental Soldier skills--including the ability to shoot, move, and communicate--serve as some of the biggest contributors to mission success in any DSCA operation. Mobility, internal and external communication, and the ability to enforce change on the environment help determine the success or failure of a DSCA operation. As leaders prepare for DSCA operations, they must determine how to ensure that personnel and vehicles remain capable of movement, communication channels remain open, and relationships and competencies are maintained. If these goals are not met, the best that a junior leader can hope for is to enact stopgap measures until more state or federal support can be brought to bear on the situation. Because DSCA operations tend to move rapidly by nature, it is up to the junior leader to implement an appropriate operational tempo without sacrificing safety on the altar of expediency.

DSCA operations begin when an active duty unit staff initiates the alert roster, prompting leaders to begin contacting their Soldiers for an impending mission. It is critical that the Soldiers and leaders arriving at the armory have packed the appropriate equipment, based on the mission variables and the projected duration of the crisis. Soldiers should be prepared for an extended stay with little to no infrastructural luxuries (beds, hot meals, showers, laundry facilities) at the support location. This general lack of infrastructure requires that leaders make allowances for the missing items so that the basic needs of the Soldiers can be met. The problem is especially significant for DSCA operations that depend on electricity, computers, printers, and communication systems to maintain a constant flow of composite risk assessments, situation reports, and other important information that must be disseminated up or down the chain of command. It is particularly important that primary, secondary, and tertiary means of communication are prechecked, loaded with appropriate frequencies, and packed for the mission so that mission command will not suffer in the event that one or two methods of communication are disrupted. Relying on cell phone communication in rural areas is ineffective; the Single-Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System or two-way radios are often the best overall options in these areas. To ensure that Soldiers have a clear and defined set of parameters in which to operate, the warning order, primary point of contact, civilian chain of command alert roster, and phone roster for the entire operation should be provided to the officer in charge or NCO in charge before the unit departs from the armory.

Junior leaders should proactively prepare for DSCA operations. These preparations usually involve the use of common sense and are generally easy to accomplish in a single drill weekend. A standardized packing list should be generated at the platoon/company level and then disseminated to troops who, in turn, should prepare a "go bag" that is available for any mission. This cuts down on the time required for Soldiers to prepare for a specific operation. The go bags should contain standard work items (such as uniforms, socks, boots, and helmets) and personal items (such as foot warmers, phone chargers, and anything else a Soldier might wish to have). Go bags could become part of the inventory that platoon sergeants and platoon leaders rapidly check before extreme weather seasons occur. A standardized packing list and a list of desirable sensitive items (radios, maps, thermal/night vision equipment, digital camera, pens, dry erase markers) for a tactical operations center might be a practical means of enabling the leading elements of the operation to rapidly arrive, prepare, and enter the disaster area with a minimum number of forgotten items. The objective of preparing for DSCA operations is a unit that can rapidly activate, organize, and deploy to the operational area with everything necessary to get the job done.

When a unit arrives at a disaster area, it is likely to be greeted with near or complete chaos. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many military and civilian chains of command were disrupted for jurisdictional, infrastructural, or communication reasons. Such disruption puts junior officers in a position where they must glean facts and directives from multiple military and civilian chains of command. The most effective way to handle chain-of-command issues is simply to ask the senior-most military member available how to deal with the situation and to whom to report. Regardless of whether the company commander is involved in the operation, the junior leader must remember to keep the company commander and the first sergeant informed about events and concerns so that they can provide the upper-echelon support that is not influenced by junior rank. On a more practical note, informing company leaders provides personnel and logistic support that is not immediately available in the disaster area. If the disaster drags on for weeks or months, company leaders can provide replacements for Soldiers and vehicles. In short, to accomplish the mission, leaders on the ground must be able to quickly grasp the complicated military/civilian chains of command present in the disaster area while also keeping the existing (but not necessarily present) chain of command in the rear apprised of the situation on the ground.

Junior leaders must not shy away from making decisions--even unsavory ones. Instead, they should brainstorm with other junior leaders and solicit the opinions of senior enlisted advisors--especially before implementing anything that will significantly affect the mission. One DSCA contingency for which many junior leaders fail to prepare is that something will go wrong. Whether the problem entails an injured Soldier, a fatality, or a damaged vehicle, junior leaders must be prepared for the impact on Soldier morale and for the fallout from above. Leaders must be ready and able to face their Soldiers and to support them in recovering from any setbacks--including submitting requests for chaplain support, if necessary. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, junior leaders must also communicate with higher headquarters and complete whatever sworn statements; Department of Defense (DD) Forms 200, Financial Liability Investigation of Property Loss', or other documentation that is needed to proceed with the mission. (1) Access to computers, printers, copiers, and other infrastructural items make this much easier. In any case, junior leaders are responsible for learning from mistakes and moving forward with operations.

With Operation Iraqi Freedom ending and the war in Afghanistan winding down, the National Guard will once again transition to an operational Army reserve rather than remain a heavily deployed component. The focus might again turn toward protecting the homeland and preparing for DSCA operations. Junior National Guard officers must prepare themselves for very different battlefields than the ones that they have primarily been facing during the last decade. The new battlefields will be located in our communities rather than on distant mountain tops. The focus will be on supporting our civilian government rather than on using warrior tasks to close with the enemy. Soldier training should always adhere to the basics, but preparation for DSCA operations should become an increasingly large component of the unit training calendar.

By Second Lieutenant Christopher Francis Larkin


(1) DD Form 200, Financial Liability Investigation of Property Loss, July 2009.

At the time this article was written. Second Lieutenant Larkin was a platoon leader with the 29th Military Police Company, Maryland Army National Guard. He was deployed to Garrett County, Maryland, where he commanded a search and rescue task force of military police; state police; and emergency management services, search, and rescue personnel in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Second Lieutenant Larkin holds a bachelor's degree in business administration and economics from Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland.
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Author:Larkin, Christopher Francis
Publication:Military Police
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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