By Roland Balik, 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published May 07, 2020
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- On March 12, 2020, Col. Matthew Jones, 436th Airlift Wing commander, activated a battle staff composed of cross-functional experts from throughout the base to prepare for battle against the invisible enemy, COVID-19.
As the coronavirus enveloped the world in a global pandemic, and much of our nation hunkered down to stay safe, the men and women of the 436th AW still had a job to do.
Home to a vital mobility hub and the Department of Defense’s largest aerial port, Dover Air Force Base had to remain open for business. With the silent virus inching ever closer to the gates, this meant that while some Airmen continued the wing’s mission, others took on new responsibilities fighting the pandemic.
Part emergency operations center, part crisis action team, the battle staff’s mission is to prevent the spread and mitigate the effects of the coronavirus while preserving combat capability for our nation.
Individuals from public health, security forces, communications and public affairs meet with emergency management, operations and maintenance to make up the core of the team. The battle staff can have up to 50 members with representatives from each group and squadron on the base.
“This was a delicate balance,” said Col. Mike Peeler, 436th Operations Group commander and former battle staff director. “Every action we took, every decision we made had to consider both the health of our team and the capability of our force.”
As a career mobility pilot, Peeler never expected he would be leading a battle staff combatting a silent, mysterious enemy.
“None of us in the battle staff were organized, trained, or equipped for this fight,” said Peeler. “But each of us, through our experiences and expertise, were uniquely prepared to take on the new roles and unexpected challenges the virus was bringing to our base.”
The battle staff does not fit any doctrinal model for organization, but COVID-19 is a new and constantly evolving enemy. Initial challenges focused around understanding what the virus was doing and balancing local, state and national guidelines with those sent from the Department of Defense and the Air Force.
“As Airmen we’re taught to do more than just fix and fly airplanes,” said Peeler. “When a crisis hits, we’re expected to jump into action, solve problems and lead.”
Equally vital was the team’s strategic routine, or battle rhythm.
“I would like to say it took us about two days to really get going but we were improving every day for the last seven weeks. It’s been a continuously improving process,” said Peeler.
Not having a quick reaction checklist for a pandemic meant the battle staff had to formulate a QRC tailored to the wing’s mission as they went along day-by-day.
“Every day can be a new chapter that we are writing in this COVID-19 epidemic across the Air Force and Department of Defense,” said Lt. Col. James Wall, 436th AW inspector general and current battle staff director. “There’s a huge challenge with that…there’s still a mission we have to do, so we have to balance that right [number] of people [returning to base] to execute the mission and not potentially cause or spread the virus.”
Factors such as deployments and leadership experience, working in high-tempo environments with the ability to rapidly adjust to, prioritize and delegate tasks were the key qualities in making the battle staff a cohesive team in minimal time.
“Pandemics are the Super Bowl of the public health world and this is what we’ve trained for our whole careers,” said Master Sgt. Lakeva Parrott, 436th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron public health flight chief. “While many of the taskers that were given to us weren’t part of our everyday job, they are things that we’ve had experience with on a much smaller scale.”
The virus’s rapid propagation created another challenge for the team: the requirement for physical distancing and virtual operations; communications and standardized battle rhythms became all the more important.
“Telework capabilities were my main concern,” said Master Sgt. Carlos Rodriguez, 436th Communications Squadron plans and implementation flight chief. “I suspected the telework services the Air Force offered were going to be bogged down due to the sudden surge, and they were. The network enterprise adapted and telework services have become better as time has passed.”
Rodriguez became the point man for connecting the battle staff to one another and to wing leadership.
“I deployed to Afghanistan as part of the Joint Network Operations Control Center Afghanistan where I had to provide communication support to International Security Assistance Force units in the entire region,” said Rodriguez. “It was challenging to find information technology solutions for units in rural areas and my experience definitely helped me as a member of the battle staff.”
Responsibility for keeping the battle staff organized and focused fell to 1st Lts. Christopher Ford, 436th Aerial Port Squadron air freight flight commander, and Taylor Huang, 736th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron aircraft maintenance unit officer in charge, who both served as executive officers.
“Our role as the battle staff execs is really an exercise in flexibility and versatility,” said Ford. “This is relatively uncharted territory and our goal is to do everything we can to support Team Dover’s ongoing efforts.”
Additionally, execs are the hub for incoming and outgoing communication to and from wing leadership.
“Being part of the battle staff let me visualize the bigger picture and all the moving pieces of a puzzle,” said Huang. “This granted me a new perspective on working as a team and highlighted the importance [of having] the ability to adapt to constant changes.”
By coincidence, Peeler and Wall live across from each other in Dover AFB’s family housing area.
“In this time of social distancing, it’s not hard for us to yell at each other from across the street or have a driveway conversation and solve problems that way,” said Peeler.
Wall added, “We can go over things at nighttime and how things need to go for the next day on the battle staff…it would be hard to replicate that creature-comfort we have going on right now.”
After seven weeks, the battle staff continues its journey in uncharted territory by protecting the base from COVID-19 while keeping Dover AFB’s mission moving.
“I think now we have a challenge looking forward and how we appropriately and deliberately re-open the base to a ‘new normal,’” said Peeler. “We got over the challenge of protecting our forces and we have a good process for that; now the next step for us is to look forward in the future to see when are we ready to open the base back up, one step at a time, to get us back to operating at full capacity.”