Fort Bliss, TX (U.S. Army) — In any disaster, local first responders start the recovery process. And when they need more manpower, the state can send in additional agencies, such as the National Guard.
If more help is needed, then the federal government can turn to the command with the mission of providing Defense Support of Civil Authorities -- specifically, Joint Task Force 51 from U.S. Army North (Fifth Army), headquartered out of Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
If the United States is unlucky enough to have multiple, massive incidents simultaneously, Army North, as U.S. Northern Command's Joint Force Land Component Command, has the mission and the expertise to lead and coordinate with units from both active and reserve bases across the U.S. to provide the appropriate support to the lead federal agency at the appropriate time.
Such was the scene for the command's JTF-51 as it participated in Ardent Sentry 2013, which is a major disaster response exercise directed by U.S. Northern Command.
JTF-51's efforts were geared toward four locations on opposite sides of Texas, with San Antonio and Fort Sam Houston in the east and El Paso and Fort Bliss in the West.
The main force of JTF-51's command in Fort Sam Houston kicked off the exercise May 20, as its forward Tactical Operations Center positioned itself at Fort Bliss.
The cities of San Antonio and El Paso each had Emergency Operation Centers, or EOCs, involved in the exercise, adding an additional layer of realistic training by simulating working with the civilian agencies when called to action.
"We have to be ready at all times to respond for the American people," said Sgt. Maj. William Powers, operations sergeant major, JTF-51. "The only way to truly stay ready is by regularly conducting training events, such as Ardent Sentry 13; so that way, no matter how many Soldiers come and go within JTF-51, the unit is always ready to fulfill its DSCA mission."
One of the big changes for the AS13 exercise involved the establishment of a forward Tactical Operations Center as a result of a recommendation from the lessons learned portion of previous exercises. By using a TAC, the task force attempted to enhance command and control of situations closer to a second incident.
"So far, everyone has been really happy with the results from using the TAC," said Lt. Col. Eric Hood, an operations officer with JTF-51. "Being right here in the city (of El Paso), we are able to take some immediate actions that we couldn't have done otherwise."
The El Paso and Fort Bliss military community is unique because it is a border community with Mexico. To capitalize on a training opportunity, a portion of Ardent Sentry 13 was designed as a cross-border incident that requires members of JTF-51 to work with both U.S. agencies and Mexican agencies during a table-top exercise with no troops crossing either border.
The Secretaria de la Defensa Nacional is working with the Task Force by sending liaison officers to Fort Sam Houston to help enhance coordination and communication between the two nations. The participants in this phase were able to discuss possibilities of mutual assistance in the event of a crisis.
"It's really important that the training exercise involves Mexico as well because we never know if a disaster will be along a border, such as the scenario we are training with now," said Powers, who postponed his retirement after finding out his unit had been placed on orders for the DSCA mission.
Military liaisons were also sent to each EOC to practice coordinating efforts with local officials and first responders. One of those TF-51 liaison officers, Capt. Daniel Fass, said his main mission was to translate military language and terms for his civilian partners.
"I know it's all English, but sometimes when Soldiers start talking, you can see the faces of civilians go a little blank and you can tell you have lost them with the military jargon," said Fass. "If I am doing my job right, then I shouldn't be seeing blank stares."
In addition to the El Paso EOC, JTF-51 worked with personnel from the 1st Armored Division EOC on Fort Bliss to simulate how a local military unit would respond to a nearby crisis.
By sending a Tactical Operations Center of approximately 30 Soldiers from Fort Sam Houston to Fort Bliss, Army North's JTF-51 added multiple levels of coordination and complexity to the Ardent Sentry exercise -- making it more realistic and enhancing the military training with that of agencies who regularly respond to incidents.
"You better believe that local authorities are already training every day to handle the situations we are training for ourselves," said Maj. Gen. Charles Gailes, commander, JTF-51. "It's our job, as a task force, to be prepared to help out when the situation becomes just too big for them to handle."