UNALASKA, Alaska –
The 351st Civil Affairs Command won the Department of Defense Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) 2020 Civil-Military Partnership of the Year Award in a virtual ceremony on Sept. 3, but there’s far more to the story than the award itself.
Although the IRT program is new to the Army Reserve Civil Affairs Functional Specialty Team concept, it has been in existence for approximately 25 years, and Civil Affairs adoption of the program has resulted in some great mission success for the Army Reserve, the units involved, and the communities that the Army Reserve works with and supports.
The IRT 2020 Civil-Military Partnership of the Year Award is a select honor presented to those who have performed the IRT mission, embodying the values of the program, including improved readiness and building strong civil-military partnerships. The award was presented this year in a virtual event during the Joint Workshop for Operational Mission Planners to the City of Unalaska and the Qawalangin Tribe of Alaska, and the 351st Civil Affairs Command Functional Specialty Team, as recognition of the foundational civil-military relationship built under the IRT program.
“This award represents a mission that was a great opportunity for our functional specialists to partner with the community and stakeholders in Unalaska...We brought functional specialists from across seven different time zones," said Col. Bradford L. Hughes, functional specialty team chief for the 351st Civil Affairs Command.
"This is what Civil Affairs functional specialists do.”
IRT is a joint training concept that the Department of Defense (DOD) implemented to increase deployment readiness while partnering with the communities the program services. The program is mission focused to provide innovation implemented by DOD provided licensed professionals in concert with community provided resources. These training opportunities are available in the contiguous United States and its territories, leveraging the military contributions of U.S. Armed Forces capabilities combined with community resources to build strong civil-military partnerships.
“IRT is a civil-military partnership program,” said Hughes. “It's OSD funded and has been going on for years, and it's really an opportunity for Soldiers to partner with domestic entities, typically smaller communities.”
The program is designed to provide cost efficient key services, leveraged mostly for medical and construction missions, and also less common transportation and cybersecurity missions, usually at the request of remote communities.
“Through this partnership, the military is able to provide essential services to that community and the benefit for the military is training, strongly enhancing readiness,” said Hughes.
The IRT training mission appears ready-made for Army Reserve Civil Affairs Functional Specialty Teams, who align to five functional specialty areas of security, justice and reconciliation, humanitarian assistance and social well-being, governance and participation, and economic stabilization and infrastructure.
In the case of the 351st Civil Affairs Command (351st CACOM) Functional Specialty Team, the mission was not so simple, but it was definitely to build a partnership with a remote community. The Qawalangin Native American Tribe from Unalaska, Alaska, had applied through the program under the nominative, five year application process for support.
“Prior to being assigned to the IRT mission, I had never heard of it, so I came into the mission with few pre-conceived notions of what it would entail,” said Capt. Sarah Robinson, a public health nurse with the 351st Civil Affairs Command, and a member of the IRT team. “Once assigned to the mission, however, I began to increasingly understand that it would be a unique opportunity to apply both my civilian and military skills and expertise towards helping a U.S. community in need of our expertise.”
The Qawalangin Tribe requested assistance for a range of cooperative support assistance.
“This particular IRT was unique in that it was a civil affairs functional specialty assessment,” said Hughes.
“I think the typical mission for the IRT program is one where, for instance, engineers go in to a community to help build a road or medical support personnel perform medical services such as shots and vaccines,” continued Hughes. “They get in, they build the road or associated mission set, and then they get out.
“In this IRT mission, we went in and really performed technical assistance to this community in terms of assessments across our areas of expertise,” said Hughes.
“As we looked at various functional specialty areas, we assessed the community need for commercial development and a way to diversify from fishing as the primary economic activity,” said Hughes. “We examined a series of other issues, including infrastructure, public health, water sanitation, and also government; relations within the community, as well.”
The IRT mission to the Unalaska community took place in two separate phases, a leader recon, followed by a main body mission with the full Functional Specialty Team.
“The leader recon was a great initial introducetion to the community just to, you know, refine what the ‘Ask’ actually was, or what the expectations were going to be,” said Hughes. “So, after that, we had a series of collaborative calls with the community to identify which functional specialists married up with a counterpart in the community from the city of Unalaska.”
Balancing COVID-19 risk mitigation with the requirements to work in the area and coordinate one-on-one with representatives of the Unalaska community also added to the complexity of the mission.
“While COVID-19 was ever-present, I don’t know that it hindered us as much as you would expect; we all had COVID-19 PCR testing prior to arrival on-island, and a negative test was both a requirement for entry into the State of Alaska, and to stay at the hotel in Unalaska,” said Robinson. “We all, of course, wore our masks throughout our time on-island—the new normal—but, regardless, we were still able to meet our local counterparts and adequately address their needs.”
Safety for the team members wasn’t the only consideration in adhering to strict COVID-19 guidelines during the mission to the Aleutian region.
“It was important that wouldn’t end up being the folks that brought COVID into a very remote community on an island with a population of about 4500,” said Hughes. “So, getting the necessary COVID PCR test that's either the nasal swab or one of the other accepted tests was required 72 hours ahead of time of arriving, in order to nest with Alaska protocol.”
Due to these safety considerations, some of the team completed their portion of the mission virtually.
“We had a 13th member of our team, a Cyber officer, who lives and works in Saudi Arabia, and due to travel restrictions there due to COVID-19, he was not able to travel to Unalaska, and instead, did his assessment remotely,” said Robinson.
One of the primary objectives of the IRT mission was to complete an infrastructure assessment that will outline weaknesses and needs to sustain the community.
“The mission isn’t over even though we're back,” said Hughes. “We have the final deliverable of completing a deep dive across the specialty areas, an objective report that goes to OSD and then we'll give it to the community,” said Hughes.
The report analyzed the Unalaska landfill, the airport runway, old contaminated military sites dating from as far back as World War II, and economic activity, along with other aspects of the community.
“What this opportunity really allowed us to do was harness our collective influence to help the community and stakeholders assess their community processes,” said Hughes. “Specifically, we assessed improvements to the existing municipal airport, to housing in the community, and governance within Unalaska and with the Qawalangin Tribe.”
Additional assessments included the area’s healthcare system, and its capacity to support the population.
“We hit the ground running from day one, and engaged throughout our time with various members of the community,” said Robinson. “For the healthcare system assessment, listening to community needs and trying to help them address those needs was a real-world mission that was directly serving a population and the community there.”
The Functional Specialty Team mission resulted in some pretty substantial positive outcomes for both the community of Unalaska and the Civil Affairs Soldiers of the 351st CACOM. First, the team got the opportunity to refine their occupational specialty of civil-military relations, and were able to train in a “deployed” environment akin to their wartime mission.
“The mission itself really builds capacity across the functional specialty team, specifically in those respective specialty areas,” said Hughes. “It was really an opportunity for our experts to assess and build an understanding of their specialty and to exercise that muscle domestically, as we typically do this work overseas.”
An additional outcome, and what may be the most enduring substantive product of the mission is the signing of an energy agreement between the Unalaska community and the area’s energy stakeholders. The community has attempted to drive interest for a geothermal power plant capable of sustaining the area’s energy needs for approximately 40 years without success, and the IRT energy assessment drove that success.
“We really brought the best and brightest in on this mission, an opportunity to, having not been ‘out the door’ in a while, because of the COVID pandemic, kind of ‘shake the dust out,’ and have our functional specialists get some reps in a challenging travel environment,” said Hughes.
In the end, the IRT program may signal a new mission set for the Army Reserve, and the specialized Civil Affairs capability present in the U.S Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command inventory.
“For this assessment we knew that it was going to be a challenging assessment environment, so these folks that went out on this IRT, they’ll be the varsity as we move into FY 21,” continued Hughes. “The IRT Civil-Military Partnership of the Year Award really affected what this mission is about, both for our team and the Unalaska community – using our CA Specialty Skills to build partnerships.”