FORT McCOY, Wisconsin –
Adaptability is defined as the ability to quickly adjust to changing conditions. This is a key component of the U.S. Army Reserve's most critical priority - Readiness.
When the Army uses the term adapt, many conjure images of chaos on the battlefield and leaders making split-second, life-or-death decisions. But for many Army Reserve Soldiers, adapting simply means adjusting to an abrupt change of mission.
Staff Sgt. Christopher Deatherage, a Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic in the 290th Training Battalion, Mustang, Oklahoma, came to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, for annual training thinking his mission for two weeks was to facilitate and participate as the Opposing Force (OPFOR) (enemy role players). The OPFOR attacks units participating in Warrior Exercise (WAREX) to sharpen Soldier and unit battlefield skills and tasks. Instead, the 214th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment from Richmond, Virginia needed Deatherage as a driver.
"I arrived a few days later than everybody else in my unit, so they asked me if I'd go over and help the 'media' out," said Deatherage. "They already had their team set up for the OPFOR, so they didn't want to rearrange the teams. Then they were going to put me in the TOC [Tactical Operations Center] to help them out there, but they already had their stuff set up and didn't need an extra hand. So eventually I got asked to facilitate the media team."
Deatherage, a 21-year military veteran who split 15 years of active duty service between the Army and the Navy and has since completed six years in the Army Reserve, said he was not sure what to think of his new mission, as he had never worked with media or public affairs before.
"All I knew was that I was gonna be driving, and I like to drive," he said. "Driving humvees is not up on my list of favorite things to do in the Army...I prefer to drive the M816 Wrecker, but I still enjoy driving around in the humvee."
As a civilian, Deatherage fixes residential and commercial heating and air conditioning systems. He is also finishing a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of Phoenix paid in full by the Army’s 9/11 G.I. Bill. He wants to work in laboratories designing protection systems for heating and air conditioning systems for major businesses.
"It's a challenging and demanding service," he said. "You have to know theory and basic responsibilities of heating and air conditioning systems...how it transfers heat from inside the home to outside the home. Just like in the Army, I have to be adaptable on the civilian side too."
Deatherage's new mission was to support the 214th MPAD mission which was to pose as varying outside media outlets and conduct video interviews with commanding officers focused on the U.S. Army's notional involvement in a simulated conflict. With everyone in the 214th focused on collecting video and photos, and creating print products, the unit stood to benefit from having a designated driver.
"A driver was necessary because the detachment had only one licensed driver, and our mission required a driver be available for potentially 15 hours per day--[6 a.m. to 9 p.m.]. I couldn't put that burden on one Soldier for the entire training exercise because of safety concerns," said Capt. Anthony Richards, 214th MPAD Commander. "Staff Sgt. Deatherage was loaned to us from the OPFOR team to support our mission."
According to Deatherage, Fort McCoy is very spread out, which presented a challenge early on.
"I wasn't quite sure where everything was when I first got here, but I figured it out," he said.
Deatherage's adaptability was further put to the test on his very first mission. The 214th MPAD's Media Team 3, posing as an unruly media outlet, was interrogated at Tactical Assembly Area (TAA) Freedom’s vehicle entry gate with Deatherage fielding the majority of the questions from his driver seat.
"The crew I was with was all in civilian clothes, and it being my first day on this job, I was in uniform. So the gate guards just didn't know what to make of it. Plus, the media outlet we were posing as only had three 'approved' journalists on the list, and we were a team of four. Our strategy was to just give me a blank media pass with no name on it and call me an escort, but that apparently raised some suspicions, and it wound up causing kind of a scene at the entry gate," he laughed.
The gate guards were peppering Deatherage with questions about who he was and where he was from.
"I'm sitting there trying to think on my toes and come up with a good backstory on the fly. It came to me...slowly. I wasn't used to role-playing," he laughed. "But they finally let us through, and the group completed its mission."
After that initial hiccup, Deatherage said the MPAD gave him a media pass with the right credentials, and that issue was fixed from then on.
Later in the week, however, on another mission with Media Team 3 again posing as the unruly media outlet and wearing civilian clothes, Deatherage had to play along as part of a fake "detainment".
"We went in the wrong ECP [Entry Control Point] at TAA Independence. They checked our credentials at the first ECP, and we were good. Then we got to what we thought was the 2nd one, and there was no one there, so we just drove right through," he started to chuckle. "Halfway through the FOB [Forward Operating Base], security decided they were going to detain us, because they didn't know who we were. They made us all get out of the truck with our hands up, then get down on our knees, and they searched us."
According to Richards, Deatherage was an integral part of the team and acted with complete professionalism every step of the way.
"What he thought to be a simple mission--driving us to TAA's and back--turned out to be an interesting, confusing, and different situation for every mission," said Richards. "He rolled with the punches and adapted without complaint or objections."
Despite not getting to complete the mission he set out to do, Deatherage said he saw the value in his new mission and actually enjoyed his time at Fort McCoy.
"I always like learning about other people's jobs. It's been nice to see how media puts the stories together, and how it all plays out. Especially when they're role-playing as the 'bad' media, and you get to see how they spin the Commanders' words. But also just as interesting was when they were not role-playing, and I got to see how they helped them look their best," he said.
Richards said Deatherage took charge of his role and was a consummate professional.
"He was always early for SP [Start Point] time, he conducted PMCS [Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services] before missions, had the vehicle ready without direction or reminder, and he fueled the vehicles as necessary," said Richards. "He ensured when it came to mission execution time, we didn't need to worry about anything related to our transportation."
After 21 years in the military, Deatherage says not a whole lot surprises or catches him off guard anymore, but there are always new perspectives to be learned in the Army.
"I've been in the Army so long, I'm pretty flexible to anything it throws at me. I had to adjust fire a little bit here at McCoy, but this has been a really good AT," he said. "There's always something to learn, and there's always something to get out of any training you do."