News: 97th Civil Affairs Battalion Soldiers hone their CA skills on North Carolina tidewater communities
Story by Leslie Ozawa
Q: What are your objectives while working in Washington County?
Team leader: We are training as part of a validation exercise for five of our company’s civil affairs teams deploying to five different countries in the U.S. Pacific Command region. Each team is focusing on a different county which replicates coastal issues of the countries they are deploying to--littoral issues, specifically flooding, infrastructure development, civil vulnerabilities, and demographic problems.
This is the first time the 97th Civil Affairs Battalion has operated in these five counties. Traditionally, we’ve operate in the southeastern portion of North Carolina. We needed to change the counties, partly to challenge ourselves with a new and different problem set. In some of the counties we’ve operated in, we were addressing the same problems over and over again. We weren’t adding value to those county managers and county governments. It’s very important that the exercise be a two-way street.
Washington County has some infrastructure challenges, some flooding issues in populated areas, and some demographic and social issues. They present a unique and particularly valuable problem set for the Civil Affairs Team to delve into, and to study and work with county officials, in order to create a way ahead on some of those issues.
Q: Did the county tell you what issues to work on?
Team leader: They identified some overarching issues to the battalion civil affairs planning team. Based upon those issues, we had meetings with the county manager, the county emergency services manager, the chief deputy of the county sheriff’s department, North Carolina State University extension services director, and the GIS manager for the county, in order to flesh out some of those issues. From the top end of the county government, we got the widest picture of the county: that the eastern part of the county suffers from persistent flooding issues three or four times a year. People have to be evacuated from their homes. That’s also a significant economic and development issue. There are issues with the water management infrastructure design, to enable surface water to flow through canals and rivers, away from residential areas.
The county has been working under a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report that’s decades old. This provided our Civil Affairs team with a problem set that had a lot of different aspects. The eastern part of the county floods so often, they need to constantly look at disaster mitigation, disaster and emergency services support, law enforcement. There are lots of different aspects to this problem set that we could look into and offer the county some value while we are here.
We did our homework before we came out to this county. We read in depth about the geographical and topologic nature of the county, the historical nature of the county. This has been a traditional agricultural county going back more than 200 years.
Q: What kind of resources you are using to get the information you need?
Team Leader: We used a lot of sources found on the Internet, but it also helps to talk to local people, particularly individuals who are involved with the business community and the agricultural community. They’re a wealth of knowledge. It’s helpful and important to lay the groundwork--getting a working knowledge of the county and its challenges from internet sources, as well as doing key leader engagements with county leaders. But just talking with residents of the county, collecting atmospherics, engaging residents of the county on particular problems and challenges of interest to them have been enlightening.
Q: What do you mean by “atmospherics?”
Team Leader: There are lots of different definitions, but from a Civil Affairs perspective, what we look at are: What is the focus of the population? What are concerns of the general population? What do people talk about when they talk about their community?
A key leader engagement is when you sit down with an individual in a very specific way, in their sphere of influence. So you engage, you prepare for that engagement and you speak to that person, in order to understand his concerns and how that may impact his sphere of influence in a given area.
But if you go to a café, a bazaar or a restaurant, and you engage with the local population, or you speak to people on the street and ask them about buildings in the town, or about streets or sewer systems, you often get lengthy opinions on a lot of things that affect the local population. You learn a lot about everything: from the infrastructure of the area, to the hobbies, the interests, the religions, and their daily activities.
We went into a café on Monday and came to understand that a lot of people in the county are avid sportsmen. Hunting and fishing is almost a universal hobby for people that live in Washington County. That’s important for us to know as a Civil Affairs team. If the U.S. Army were to go into an area where hunting and fishing were a mainstay of the population, it’s easier to understand why people are carrying guns around and go to hunting areas on weekends or in the evenings. You understand why a lot of people have boats and know the waterways extremely well.
These are things that enable us to as a CAT to truly act as a combat multiplier for a combatant command. It’s information that we gather and the rapport that we build with the civil population and local nationals. What people say in informal conversations can build a more comprehensive understanding of populations within a given area of operations.
Q: How large is the county?
Team leader: Just over 12,000 people and very sparsely populated. It’s a fairly large county. Agriculture and forestry are the two main industries, and you need a lot of open space for both of these industries. There are only three incorporated towns in the county.
The county law enforcement is small but has a significant area to cover. The deputy investigator told me about some of the frustrations of driving at high speeds a half hour to get to an emergency call at the other end of the county, only to find out when he arrives, that it was a false alarm. And having to drive half an hour or more, back to his normal patrol area. Distance and manpower are significant challenges for the county.
Q: What were you doing out today with the deputy?
Team Leader: We went out today with Deputy Garrett, a former Marine who’s also responsible for driving the county’s high water rescue vehicle, an Army M-929, a five-ton truck acquired by the county a number of years ago. In event of an emergency, the county sheriff’s department also acts as first responders to rescue people from flooded areas. Deputy Garrett is intimately aware of areas in the county that flood, because he drives that vehicle to rescue people through floods several times a year.
When we spoke with county management and spoke with the chief deputy, she recommended that he ride along with us to do our civil reconnaissance of areas at high risk of flooding.
The overall purpose today was to take pictures of flood prone areas, ensure we geo-coordinate those areas, so we can put a grid with those photos and present that to the county management. They, in turn, can produce a packet for FEMA to apply for funding for an emergency services medical vehicle with flood-fording capability. Their current vehicle, while it can ford high water areas, doesn’t have any medical equipment and therefore has no EMS capability.
The county is responsible for evacuating people from their homes. Many are elderly people who often require some degree of first aid and medical care, as they are being evacuated during a crisis flooding situation. It’s important for the county to have additional information and pictographic and geospatial evidence in their packet when they send it up to FEMA.
One of the things the county GIS manager is keen on, is documenting pictographically and also geospatially as much of the county as he can. It provides him with a database of information that he can call upon while at his desk, without sending someone out to an area to take photographs. We acted today not only as Civil Affairs consultants, using our background abilities and knowledge of infrastructure and terrain analysis, but also served as “free manpower” for the county today to do time-consuming but necessary field work.
We are here in Washington County not only to train but to provide value to the county government. That’s good, and that’s paramount to the mission of our mission readiness exercise. When deployed, we could be doing the same thing.
Besides these two issues of producing information for a FEMA packet and adding to the county’s GIS database, we also completed two county infrastructure building assessments. We did an assessment of the Plymouth fire station for flood risk and also did an infrastructure assessment of a county-owned warehouse structure near the municipal airport.
Q: What are your qualifications to do infrastructure assessment?
Team Leader: We’ve all been through the Civil Affairs Qualification Course [at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg]. Before that, I was a military intelligence officer, and my academic background is economic development. I have a master’s in business administration with a focus on Asia-Pacific business environment.
I have two NCOs. One is an engineer, who has experience in engineering operations. Another is a logistician. In addition, we are all are trained in Special Operations medicine and advanced first aid.
Q: What’s unique about this exercise?
Team Leader: The 97th Civil Affairs Battalion is unique, even within the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, because it is the only battalion that validates its civil affairs teams in the real world, prior to deployment.
This is not a canned scenario, with scripts involved. When we meet with county managers, they tell us what they think; we do real key leader engagements with members of the law enforcement and fire departments. There’s no one pulling strings on people at the end of the day, so this represents the real world, what a deployment would be like.
We have to get along with people that may not be easy to get along with all the time. We encounter political situations within the county. Some people may not get along with each other and may try to capitalize on our presence here, just like in the deployed environment. Nothing replicates the real world like the real world.
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