FORT STEWART, Ga. — Suddenly, the sky turns a dark, ashy gray. Large billows of clouds race across as the wind picks up, whipping into a frenzy. Gusts reach speeds of 85 miles per hour. Heavy rainfall drum against rooftops. Trees thrash back and forth.
As quickly as it all began, it ends, leaving streets in ruins behind.
Trees uprooted. Streets flooded. Homes destroyed.
This, and other natural disasters, hit towns across America repeatedly throughout the year. And for several years now, U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers have been training to respond when their help is needed.
In late March, Soldiers from the 200th Military Police Command trained on a natural disasters exercise called Vigilant Guard.
The exercise took place in Fort Stewart, Georgia, by creating a category 3 hurricane scenario for Soldiers to respond. However, U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers from the 317th Military Police Battalion weren’t out on the streets fighting the aftermath and destruction in the open. At least not yet. Rather, their training tackled the planning, strategy and the legal restrictions involved in what is known as Defense Support of Civil Authorities, or DSCA.
“This is the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to participate in an exercise involving many state and federal agencies working towards a common goal,” said Master Sgt. Juan M. Santiago, senior maintenance supervisor for the MP unit, which is headquartered in Tampa, Florida.
DSCA is a complicated subject founded in U.S. law, even though the concept can sound simple at face value. DSCA is the concept governing the military and troops helping local police, firefighters, medics and other first responders to care the American people in a time of need.
“No one wants to think about a natural disaster, but the hard truth is, as a nation we need to be prepared for the worst,” said 2nd Lt. Jacob Libby, plans officer with the 317th MP Bn.
The challenge, however, is that until 2011, the U.S. Army Reserve was legally restricted from being able to help. Until then, only the National Guard could send Soldiers because they can be activated by state governors.
In 2011, President Barrack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act 2012 (NDAA 2012) making changes to Title 10, U.S. Code, which outlines the role of armed forces in the United States. The code provides legal basis for the roles, missions and organization of the Department of Defense and its service branches.
Once the NDDA was passed, it allowed the president to alert and mobilize Army Reserve forces for relief missions on U.S. soil.
The law was based on the principle that
“everyone can contribute to safeguarding the Nation from harm.”
Now, when requested by civil authorities, Army Reserve commanders can respond to save lives, prevent human suffering or alleviate great property damage within the U.S.
“DSCA operations cannot be taken lightly since most natural disasters cannot be predicted,” said Santiago.
A component of DSCA is the Immediate Response Authority (IRA). The primary purpose of use of the IRA during DSCA is to support civilian agencies when there are imminently serious conditions and does not permit approval from higher authority.
Military police involvement in DSCA operations is significantly different from other military support such as engineer or medical Soldiers. Military police cannot enforce the rule of law or arrest citizens on the streets.
However, they can provide other, indirect support to civil authorities. Vigilant Guard sharpened the military police troops in better understanding their role during a disaster relief effort.
“Domestic law enforcement support requires expert legal advice to military leaders,” said Lt. Col Jack Gray, commander of the 317th MP Bn. “It has been critical for the staff to thoughtfully analyze the legal restraints imposed on the U.S. Army Reserve by the Title 10 status.”
David Hawkins, a civil military projects officer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) informed the 317th MP Bn. Soldiers on federal laws, presidential directives and Department of Defense policies.
“Besides conducting law enforcement operations, military police possess a diverse skill-set that can be applied to various disaster relief missions,” said Capt. Christopher Shineman, planning assistant. “Search and rescue and evaluation of viable evacuation routes are examples of potential military police functions.”
U.S Army Reserve units can provide Soldiers who can be put to work on a moment’s notice, plus many of them specialize in logistics, medicine and construction, all services needed by civil authorities during an incident.
“It is important to know how to work with different agencies to accomplish tasks,” said Capt. Paul Koziuk, law and order officer with the 317th MP Bn. “Regardless of different training or perspectives, being able to coordinate efforts between U.S. Army Reserves, National Guard and civilian agencies provides a limitless amount of experience in order to complete any job.”
Training exercises like Vigilant Guard implement an all-in, capabilities-based approach to preparedness, emphasizing that everyone can contribute to safeguarding the Nation from harm.
“In such large disasters, there is limited time to develop shared understanding with our National Guard counterparts in support of civilian emergency managers and governmental leaders,” said Gray.
Proper preplanning is critical to mission support. Knowing what resources federal military forces may provide in the area technical assistance, logistical support and communication assistance before a disaster occurs will increase mission effectiveness.
“The rapid response and joint operations are critical in order to save lives, alleviate suffering and protect property in a situation like this. Army Reserve units can benefit from future exercises and or training opportunities like this one,” said Santiago.
The 317th MP Bn. conducted a staff exercise as part of Vigilant Guard 17. That means senior leaders executed planning techniques to understand the situation and mission, develop courses of action and produce an operation plan or order. So many of these planning skills also apply on the battlefield overseas. Ultimately, it’s about leaders and staff working together to execute a challenging mission as a team, usually under duress and with rapidly-changing information.
“During the exercise, we responded to various mission assignments as directed from the Georgia Dual-Status Commander,” said Capt. Daniel Lopez-Guerrero, officer in charge of planning. The battalion staff was afforded the opportunity to exercise its proficiency in employing military problem-solving and planning tools, and therefore, able to assess our readiness.”
The command will continue to participate in DSCA training with the intent to move from a planning phase to an implementation stage.
“Part of the military’s role is to protect the lives of the American people,” said Libby. “Training exercises like this prepare us to assist in saving lives and preserving the communities we live in during a natural disaster.”