THE PENTAGON — The U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) is one of the nation’s six geographically focused unified commands with responsibility for U.S. military operations in the Caribbean, Central America and South America, as well as security cooperation with defense and public-security forces in the region. As with much of the reserve force, COVID-19 restrictions directly impacted the ability of SOUTHCOM reservists to support the Combatant Command (COCOM).
Navy Reserve SOUTHCOM Headquarters Staff reservists found an innovative solution to support the COCOM despite COVID-19 restrictions.
Since March of 2020, COVID travel restrictions prevented “non-local” reservists from traveling to SOUTHCOM’s Doral, Fla., headquarters. Globally, restriction of movement (ROM) measures also severely limited support for planned exercises and operations throughout the region. In an effort to provide consistent, meaningful support to the COCOM, a cadre of Washington, DC based reservists found a “workaround” solution by providing support at SOUTHCOM’s liaison office in the Pentagon. These reservists, with collective knowledge and expertise in the Area of Responsibility (AOR), were able to participate in time-critical briefings and contribute to emerging requirements for analysis as well as the creation of information products.
The commanding officer for the reserve unit, Capt. Ben Boyer summarized, “It was amazing to see what was ‘just an idea’ expressed in an e-mail turn into a robust augmentation at the SOUTHCOM Washington Field Office (WFO). In addition, with a significant reduction in the requirements to support exercises, and the increased need for real world analysis during the Presidential transition, we were able to tailor the type of support provided exactly to the needs of the command. When we took a hard look at how we could best engage, it turns out our reservists actually increased our support level despite the pandemic travel restrictions. Further, we have learned how to effectively use remote tools to a much greater degree in order to contribute directly to the COCOM from DC or anywhere in the world.”
The support opportunity was the brainchild of Capt. Billy Hall, who was then serving as the unit’s Executive Officer. He first encountered the SOUTHCOM WFO while working as an Air Force civilian in the Pentagon and had even provided limited support on an ad hoc basis. Capt. Hall knew and had traveled for years with other DC area residents to SOUTHCOM. He recognized that the unusual geographic coincidence of these non-local Selected Reserves (SELRES) and the COVID travel restrictions provided a unique opportunity to increase the Navy Reserve footprint at the WFO exponentially.
“For the past year, our geographically dispersed reserve team has been able to provide direct support to SOUTHCOM from the Pentagon office. This allows our team to log onto our Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) and participate in secure videoconferences and other meetings for operational coordination,” Capt. Hall said.
The Reserve support wouldn’t be possible without the invitation of the Washington Field Office Chief, Col. Adrian Bogart, whose Army Special Forces background prepared him for Joint Operations. As the WFO Chief, he served as a critical liaison in SOUTHCOM's gateway to the Department of Defense, Capitol Hill and throughout the larger Washington DC beltway. Col. Bogart, had plenty of support requirements and not enough manpower, so he was grateful for having Navy Reserve personnel aboard to lend a hand.
“Our reserve team is invaluable to the COCOM Commander. They surged with critical support during volatile times in the AOR, from humanitarian assistance and relief operations during Hurricanes Eta and Iota, to critical analysis of malign threat actors in the region, as well as the Presidential transition and Commander visits. Whether the reservist specializes in maritime operations, supply, medical, HR, public affairs or is a Foreign Area Officer (FAO), they all provide a unique perspective that’s valued by our Commander. SOUTHCOM's recent success in Washington is attributed directly to our reserve partners.”
While many of the reservists have been able to support the WFO on site under stringent pandemic protocols, many have flexed their time providing open source analysis and participation in unclassified think tank and interagency working groups. Lt. Cmdr. Marc Schron provided support remotely and was recently awarded a Joint Service Achievement Medal for helping develop strategies and policies to align with DoD, COCOMs, and partners to advance SOUTHCOM Missions.
“The opportunity to leverage my civilian skills as a consultant, along with my experience as a Surface Warfare Officer has provided an opportunity for me to make a direct impact to the command,” said Lt. Cmdr. Schron, who works in DC for in his civilian career.
Supporting SOUTHCOM from the Pentagon has been a success story not just for the Reserve team, but for SOUTHCOM staff. Another DC local, Cmdr. Paul Selby noted, “It’s amazing to log into SOUTHCOM systems and integrate with the HQ team in real time on Secure VTCs and Commander engagements. Working at the WFO allows us to support coordination with government agencies on policy development and execution to improve the overall U.S. security posture.” LCDR Selby recently took over as the unit’s executive officer and is a business leader and cybersecurity analyst in the Washington, DC region.
SOUTHCOM’s Deputy Commander for Mobilization and Reserve Affairs, Maj. Gen. Rafael A. Ribas, has also been a critical element in the creation of this informal support arrangement. He noted, "I am extremely proud of not only the 'Can Do' attitude of our reserve team, but also the force multiplying capabilities they bring in direct support of the Combatant Commander's theater campaign plan. They bring unique skills and diverse backgrounds that really give us a competitive edge, whether they work in the public or private sectors. Our reserve component personnel are successfully fully integrated at every level of the command."
The innovative thinking of individual reservists combined with the adaptability of the Command structure has enabled this unit to stay relevant and serve a vital need within the COCOM despite disruptive conditions. The future for SOUTHCOM operations and exercises will likely normalize as more of the integrated workforce gets vaccinated. With engagements throughout our partner nations increasing on a conditions-based approach, the SOUTHCOM Navy Reserve Headquarters Staff unit stands ready to serve wherever the need is greatest.