State employees prove vital in VNG’s COVID-19 response

Virginia Department of Military Affairs state employees conduct a continuity of operations exercise April 12, 2018, at the Camp Pendleton State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Two years later DMA employees are putting that training to the test during COVID-19 response operations. (U.S. National Guard photo by A.J. Coyne)

RICHMOND, Va. — When uniformed Soldiers and Airmen of the Virginia National Guard were called to duty to support the fight against COVID-19 in March, they wouldn’t have been able to tackle their mission without the hard work, expertise,  and dedication of the 400 state employees of the Virginia Department of Military Affairs.

“In all my years in uniform with the Virginia National Guard, I never ever had an appreciation or understanding of the huge state footprint behind everything the Guard does,” said retired Brig. Gen. Walt Mercer, chief operations officer for the Department of Military Affairs. “Then I took this job and it didn’t take me long to realize the state workforce and DMA touch every functional area of the Guard.  Our state team provides stability and expertise to all operations, and the Virginia Guard couldn’t operate without the state workforce.”

Retired military members make up many of the DMA leadership slots and that military experience is vital to their mission.

“These are retired military with a vast amount of experience and they have ‘been there and done that,’” said Master Sgt. David Durrette, the senior operations NCO in the Virginia National Guard J3. “There’s no lag time in completing tasks and getting things done because our state employees, 99% of the time, have anticipated what’s coming their way. They’ve been through it before.”

DMA employees often work behind the scenes, in a variety of fields providing vital resources and assistance to the Soldiers and Airmen in uniform.

As a response to COVID-19 progressed, facilities personnel were tasked with ensuring the readiness centers were ready for use. That included a complicated plan to disinfect facilities statewide.

“We are the spearhead for all operations and facility maintenance and our personnel were responsible for getting facilities up to standard to meet the COVID-19 mission,” said Dave Short, the deputy facilities management officer for the Virginia DMA. “We started a vigorous spraying regime that has gone from one side of the Commonwealth to the other, north and south.”

Each facility has trade technicians who are performing wipe downs and mission essential cleanings at the readiness centers.

“Our trade techs are critical because if we go to a huge response and we need all of our armories, they need to be up and running,” Mercer said. “The techs are doing all the maintenance and keeping the buildings up.”

Short explained the agent they’re spreading lasts for six months. This will ensure any facility, no matter where it’s located, can continue to be utilized for the next half year in response to COVID-19 response missions.

“The cleaning of the facility is tied to both state and federal safety standards,” Mercer explained. “We’re making sure it’s done right so Soldiers and anyone can come in the facilities and not be worried about getting sick.”

But before the disinfecting could occur, state employees had to first procure the material.

“We had four to five procurement teams getting the necessary materials to those individual readiness centers,” Short explained. “They’re up late getting orders in to the system to get materials for the Soldiers. They have to make sure everything is ordered and delivered.”

“We do this on a 24-hour, seven-day a week mission,” he added. “We never stop. That’s just the way we are. We want to make sure the mission is successful.”

Tim White  estimates that he performed 30 state active duty missions while serving in uniform.

“State employees are the continuity of this whole operation,” said the retired sergeant major, who now serves as a human resources trainer for the Virginia DMA. “You get Soldiers just coming off work, showing up there ready to go. But the state employees are stepping up and making sure everything is ready for the Soldiers when they get there.”

When Guard personnel come on to state active duty, they can thank state employees for ensuring they have food, lodging, and, often times, the proper equipment for the mission.

“I have a contracting officer who works closely with the Virginia National Guard Logistics Operations Center,” said Don Sutherland, chief financial officer for DMA. “She is responsible for procuring all goods and services our troops need on state active duty, primarily lodging, hotels and meals but it can extend to other things. We’ve had to get hard hats, life vests, chainsaws. Whatever the mission requires.”

In addition, Sutherland’s employees ensure Soldiers are loaded into the state system so they can be paid properly.  

“The other half of my office’s mission is behind the scenes and after action,” Sutherland said. This includes collecting all the documentation and arranging all the funding, working with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure Virginia gets reimbursed from the federal government, and closing out workers compensation issues.

“No one really sees that but it can take us anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years to clean that up,” Sutherland explained.

At Fort Pickett, DMA employees not only ensured facilities were ready for the COVID-19 mission, but they are hustling to ensure the Maneuver Training Center will be ready for what is shaping up to be a crowded annual training season. 

“We’re preparing for a mass RSOI [Reception, staging, onward movement, and integration] of forces that are going out to the affected areas,” Col. Paul Gravely, commander of the Fort Pickett Maneuver Training Center explained. “We had to very quickly mobilize and synchronize with the facilities staff to spray those areas, make sure they are disinfected and make sure we had sites that were for quarantined Soldiers coming off duty in the future.”

Gravely said they couldn’t have done this without the state employee workforce.

“Very few Soldiers have a hand in what is going on here,” he said. “The state employee workforce did a tremendous amount of work making sure facilities here and across the state were disinfected and ready for future operations.

In addition, because of COVID-19’s impact on military training schedules, Fort Pickett is preparing for a busy, compressed, later-summer annual training season.  

“We probably won’t see AT here until late June,” Gravely explained. “It’s going to cut off almost two months of our AT time for the year. That’s a big deal when you consider the number of troops that flow through here.”

As a result, Fort Pickett employees have been scrambling to make sure they’re ready for that surge of annual trainings.

“It says something that our staff figured out how to get something done and get it done safely during a very trying and stressful time,” Gravely said.

Meanwhile, at the Virginia National Guard Sgt. Bob Slaughter Headquarters in Richmond, state employees are also playing an important role keeping leadership informed on everything going on around the state. Charles Finke and Michael Pittman are DMA employees who are valued members of the J3 team, said Master Sgt. David Durrette, the senior operations NCO in the J3. 

Finke maintains the Common Operating Picture, via the Domestic Operations Awareness and Assessment Response Tool system, and also performs many of the same duties as Watch NCOs, according to Durrette. 

“He maintains our status boards and always makes sure that senior leaders are aware of important information coming in through DAART and our JOC email,” Durrette said. “This information is used to form knowledge and that knowledge greatly assists the Adjutant General and his staff in making important decisions about our response to COVID-19.”

Meanwhile Pittman handles all of the J3’s communication needs and does it with very little guidance given.

“Whether it’s radios, computers, platforms or devices, Mr. Pittman is on it,” Durrette said. “He addresses all parts and aspects of our communications. He is one of the folks that ‘have been there and done that.’ Without him, many our communications platforms wouldn’t be functioning today.”

Like everyone else worldwide, DMA employees have had to overcome the obstacles posed by the COVID-19 virus and have had to figure out how to complete their missions while also maintaining a safe environment.

“I am proud to see how quickly DMA was able to pull resources together,” said Beth Nelson, Department of Public Works installation forester/supervisor. “For me it doesn’t matter if you are a purchaser, carpenter, or equipment operator, we have no idea how long this will last but pulling together, working together and sharing our resources is a more important than ever.”

If employees can’t work remotely and have to come in to work, Mercer explained, they’re instructed to work on alternate shifts or stagger office locations. If Fort Pickett employees, for example, have to ride out to the range, they want them riding in two separate vehicles instead of riding together. According to Mercer, Rebecca Moses, DMA safety and occupational health manager, is performing spot checks to ensure the guidelines are being followed.

“DMA has done a great job reaching out to all staff, keeping us informed,” Nelson said. “Making sure those that are working on the ground have protective supplies and people to reach out to if needed. Knowing we have plans in place, people on the ground and support available that is all anyone could ask for.”

A new initiative Mercer began last year is proving to be vital in the current atmosphere. In an effort to improve communication and transparency with the DMA staff, Mercer started a blog to serve as a one-way messaging tool to make sure important information is getting out there to the state employees.

“I usually do one every couple of weeks but once this virus hit, I’ve been posting more,” he said. “I am so thankful I have this tool. We put out policies and try to anticipate questions and dispel rumors. It’s been valuable for the organization for me to get word out.”

“The DMA COO blog has been an excellent way for me to get the facts,” Nelson said. “I have found what employees need most right now is consistency and answers, that is what I get weekly from the DMA COO blog.”

But it’s not just DMA employees who need to be kept informed.

“We get questions from congressional members as well as families,” Mercer said. “Cassy Russell, our legislative and policy analyst, makes sure we provide them with the right information.”

Russell said the whole staff has done a great job providing information to answer questions from elected officials and families.

“We’ve been able to get all our questions answered quickly so we can respond quickly and can squash any rumors,” she said.

Overall, the performance and attitude of DMA employees in every section across the state has impressed their boss and once again showed their importance to the Virginia National Guard mission.

“I couldn’t be prouder,” Mercer said. “I’m so very proud of our team being dispersed, overcoming these challenges and being so productive during this crisis.”