NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — On the first day of hurricane season, Petty Officer 1st Class Joshua Struikman’s job included aiming one of the satellite dishes his team would use if civilian authorities call for help.
It was practice — this time.
His incident support team, like others at Fort Eustis based Joint Task Force-Civil Support, trains regularly to respond to anything from a nuclear accident or attack to a hurricane. He’s been doing it since September, coming off deployment with aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, where he was leading petty officer for the cybersecurity division.
Now, his team can be on the move in five hours to receive and support military personnel responding to a civilian call for help. He and his teammates find food, shelter and fuel for those troops. Their reports to JTF-CS headquarters at Fort Eustis help experts determine what else might be needed.
Setting up the communications link takes “maybe five minutes,” Struikman said. He’s learned the likely position of the geosynchronous orbiting military satellite that’s his main link, no matter where in the U.S. he might go.
Once the dish is set up and roughly aimed, it typically takes only one or two trips back and forth to his laptop in the team’s operations tent, checking the signal, to get the aim exactly right. He also sets up a small disc that targets commercial satellites, but it can aim itself. From then, he’s the one handling the team’s steady stream of messages in and out.
For two decades, the 150 members of Joint Task Force-Civil Support have been the Department of Defense’s command and control unit for chemical, nuclear, biological or radiological attacks. Earlier this year, it also was tasked with taking on that role for all hazards, including the hurricanes and pandemics where it has already been playing a role.
This year, too, JTF-CS decided to shift from having a main support team to organizing several smaller ones. They usually number a half-dozen people, including operations planners, a logistics specialist and a medical coordinator.
Having more, smaller teams meant that when Marine Lt. Col. John Gallagher’s crisis action team was been busily updating recommendations for the team on the ground for a fictional nuclear accident in Pennsylvania recently, they knew there would be other JTF-CS specialists who can get to the scene of an (fictional) earthquake in Seattle within hours.
The planners got word of that crisis from the cavernous operations center, downstairs from Gallagher’s whiteboards.
There, beneath giant screens that displayed a map of central California’s geological faults and sites of nuclear facilities and plants full of toxic chemicals as well as detailed run down of what military people were on the ground and who was headed there, they rehearsed scenarios of earthquake responses.
But some kept a watchful eye on reports about the hurricane in Mexico, making preliminary assessments of what might be needed should it reach U.S. soil and if civilian authorities asked for the military’s help.
The operations center is active 24 hours a day. Most days are focused on practicing what to do with scenarios — “lots of sets and reps,” as operations director, Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Grasso put it
But staff are also always actively on the watch for situations that could mean a call for military help.
That’s a big point for everyone at the command: they step in to help after a disaster when a state asks for federal help, and in turn a designated civilian federal agency — usually the Federal Emergency Management Agency — determines that the military has the resources needed.
It is a civilian incident manager — an official of a state or local government — who says what jobs need doing, not the military.
On Struikman’s team, for instance, having people on the ground means the logistics expert, Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Despota can call back to JTF-CS for more 5-ton trucks if high water on a hurricane-hit road means soldiers or Marines can’t get through to complete an assigned task.
But if the team’s medical planner, Ron Greenaway happens to hear a hospital needs to move patients, it is not his job to turn around immediately and get them moved — he needs to formally hear that the civilian authority and FEMA have assigned that job to the military.
“Our job is to support, not to take charge,” says Major General Jeffrey Van, JTF-CS commander.
That support has included leading more than 2,700 active duty personnel who set up a giant, temporary hospital at New York City’s Javits Center and pitched in at 11 city hospitals as well as two field medical stations and three hospitals in New Jersey soon after COVID-19 overwhelmed those communities in the spring of 2020.
From February to June last year, the command led more than 2,500 active duty personnel operating 22 vaccination centers in 14 different states and territories.
“It’s not like anything else in the military,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Tim Lundberg. “We join the military to defend and protect the United States. And this is a chance to help our fellow Americans.”