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How the Army helps the homeland, not just through warfighting

The U.S. Army is called upon to help the nation not only because it has warfighting responsibilities, but also because it has vast resources and capabilities that can be utilized to assist local authorities when a disaster hits.

“The Army has the ability to rapidly deploy forces to support communities around the country,” said Army Col. Luke Donohue. “It really is the service that can bring the necessary resources, people and expertise directly to the...

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The U.S. Army is called upon to help the nation not only because it has warfighting responsibilities, but also because it has vast resources and capabilities that can be utilized to assist local authorities when a disaster hits.

“The Army has the ability to rapidly deploy forces to support communities around the country,” said Army Col. Luke Donohue. “It really is the service that can bring the necessary resources, people and expertise directly to the point of need.”

Donohue is a “defense coordinating officer” with the Army, meaning he plays a critical role in organizing and executing missions where the Army steps in to help on the local level.

Those missions are typically in response to events such as fires, hurricanes, floods and earthquakes.

An emergency must exceed the capabilities of local, state and federal agencies before the Army gets involved.

That is why, according to Donohue, it’s extremely important for the Army to have strong connections directly with those agencies.

“You’re talking about the National Guard, FEMA, state emergency managers, fire, police and right on down to the county level,” said Donohue. “We create and maintain those deep relationships across the spectrum.”

It was a perfect storm in 2020

The start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 demonstrated how the Army can, in an instant, jump into action and respond to a wide range of events that can quickly overwhelm local agencies and facilities.

In Seattle, Washington, the Army assembled a 250-bed field hospital in order to treat non-COVID-19 patients so local hospitals would be able to free up their own beds to care for people who contracted the coronavirus.

The field hospital involved about 500 military medical personnel.

While some of the personnel constructed the facility, others worked closely with local officials to develop plans for determining which patients would be taken to the hospital and how they would get there.

“We have an important mission,” Army Col. Hope Williamson-Younce said at the time. “We are expeditionary, we’re agile, and we’re responsive. We have medical doctors, nurses and support staff from all over the world — they mobilized in a moment’s notice to support the American people.”

Later in 2020, severe wildfires broke out in Northern California.

“The Army was helping to provide facilities and medical personnel to respond to COVID, and we also had soldiers providing firefighting support,” said Donohue.

More than 200 Army soldiers were called in to support fire response operations in densely-forested areas.

They hiked up mountains carrying hoses and equipment, created grids to search for hotspots and worked to ensure that extinguished wildfires did not reignite.

“We were able to use some pretty interesting handheld devices that were used almost like text messaging machines when our soldiers were in places where the smoke was too dense for our standard military radios,” Donohue explained. “We used this technology to basically ensure that we could mitigate risk and reach out to commanders on the ground and communicate in real time.”

Then came the COVID-19 vaccination effort.

The Army helped to establish vaccination centers in states around the country, including the first federally-supported COVID vaccine center which was located at California State University in Los Angeles.

More than 200 soldiers deployed to Los Angeles for that effort.

Their team was comprised primarily of vaccinators, registered nurses and other medical personnel.

“Those are three big examples – COVID, fires and vaccination centers – where the Army demonstrated an ability to rapidly deploy forces to support local communities,” Donohue said.

How the Army gets the job done

The Army is able to respond to so many different kinds of situations and disasters through “effective command and control,” according to Donohue.

In other words, the Army doesn’t have one group of soldiers specifically trained as firefighters who respond when wildfires break out.

Rather, a certain number of soldiers are deployed to the location of wildfires and undergo specific training for five to seven days before performing their duties.

When it comes to responding to something like a hurricane, soldiers often help by bringing in equipment such as helicopters and vehicles that can move through high water.

“It’s all about our readiness,” Donohue said. “It comes from having a lot of experience rapidly training and deploying,”

And carrying out those missions within the U.S. can be particularly rewarding.

“There’s nothing more important in my mind than being able to see Army soldiers on the ground, helping their own citizens in a crisis,” Donohue said.  “They go into communities and relieve the pain and suffering they’re going through and that’s a really a powerful experience.”