Military Team Helps Make Hospitality Happen
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
Fort Dix, N.J. To s, Jun. 15, 1999 This story is part of a series of articles detailing U.S. military support to the Kosovar refugees who have been provided safe haven at Fort Dix, N.J. To see the entire series, visit our Operation Provide Refuge web site.
Most career military people don't even blink an eye when they get orders to do the impossible at a moment's notice. It's just part of the job.
That's how it was for Army Brig. Gen. Mitchell M. Zais, Army Reserve Lt. Col. Ellsworth E. Mayfield Jr. and more than about 230 other service members who suddenly found themselves part of Joint Task Force Provide Refuge.
The soldiers got orders to join an interagency task force headed by the Department of Health and Human Services. The task force was to form here and prepare to receive, house and process up to 20,000 ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo.
The first flight with about 450 refugees would arrive in three days. To further complicate the mission, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and her welcoming party would arrive at about the same time. The military responded with a hearty 'Sir, yes sir!' But some confessed to some incredulous head shaking before charging ahead.
Zais assembled his staff, including logistics officer Mayfield, from the U.S. Army Reserve Command at Fort McPherson. At Fort Dix, installation transportation, billeting and food service directors went to work preparing for the influx of refugees and high-ranking visitors. Army officials mobilized forces from the XVIII Airborne Corps' 530th Supply and Services Battalion and other Fort Bragg, N.C., support units to care for the refugees.
Zais arrived at Fort Dix after midnight April 30. Early the next morning, he was coordinating the military's efforts with those of Health and Human Services. That morning the interagency team learned they'd been granted a 24-hour reprieve. The first flight, scheduled May 2, would now arrive May 3. "We were pleased to learn it would be Wednesday afternoon, not Wednesday morning, Zais recalled with a slight smile.
As the arrival date drew near, specialists from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Customs Service, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and other government agencies began assembling at the Army Reserve post south of Trenton. Officials and volunteers came in from the International Organization on Migrations, American Red Cross, nine refugee resettlement agencies contracted by the State Department, and other nongovernment agencies.
"We put this team together in such short notice with such a visible suspense date that there was no time for bickering or interagency rivalry to arise," Zais said. As the arrival drew ever closer, the interagency team worked together very effectively, he said.
The general's staff is Total Force. Some members, such as Mayfield, are reservists serving on full-time active duty in a special Active Guard and Reserve status.
Mayfield's nine-member logistics staff set up offices for the military and the various agencies. "We had to stand up the headquarters with furniture, office supplies, file cabinets, phone lines, computers," he said. "We had to find places to live, vehicles -- plus prepare for the refugees."
The task force logisticians worked with base officials to provide food, housing, laundry and transportation for the task force and the refugees. Mayfield noted that while supporting Operation Provide Refuge, Fort Dix officials were also providing transportation for Operation New Horizons and hosting reserve training.
"Without the support of the installation staff, we couldn't have made it happen," said Army Maj. Kent Jennings, an AGR officer and head of transportation for the joint task force. Fort Dix transportation chief Johnnie L. Jackson and passenger movement chief Robert Z. Beavin, for example, assembled a fleet of 95 leased and General Services Administration vehicles to shuttle military, civilian staff and refugees, Jennings said.
The post civilian food service officer, retired Army Master Sgt. General Gregg, adjusted meal times and recipes at two dining facilities to suit Muslim customs and European eating habits. Budgetary constraints, however, prevented him from adding goat cheese, rabbit and some other special menu items the refugees requested, he said.
"The biggest thing we can't provide them is time," Gregg said. "They like to sit and eat and talk. We don't have the time since we have to feed so many people."
Each day, Operation Provide Refuge brought new lessons, Mayfield concluded. It proved to be "a fast-paced, challenging experience for even the most experienced logistician and Army planner," he said. "We are literally developing the model for future refugee operations."
While the military worked its magic, the federal and nongovernment agencies put procedures in place to move the refugees through Immigration and Naturalization Service processing, provide identification cards, set up medical screening and provide emergency medical care. Red Cross workers prepared to welcome the refugees with box lunches, fruit and juice snacks, 'comfort kits' with toiletries, and clothing vouchers.
There was also a major planning effort under way to receive the Clinton party of high-ranking dignitaries, Zais said. This required coordination with White House and Secret Service officials.
Wednesday morning, May 5, everything was ready. The refugees arrived and were processed. The first lady arrived, welcomed the refugees and departed. The climactic day wasn't over till 2 a.m. Thursday, Zais said. The next morning, he said, the interagency task force "got together and said, 'OK, now we need to get organized.' By that time, we were used to working with each other. We'd already built the team."
Sgt. Maj. Steven Woods, an AGR soldier from Army Reserve Command headquarters, said people from the civilian agencies said they couldn't believe the military could get everything done in so little time.
"We told them, 'We're used to chaos,'" Woods said. "You just sit down and talk about it, figure out the right way to go and go with it. If it works, that's fine. If it doesn't, then we back up, figure out what was wrong, fix it and move on out." Hosting the refugees takes the same kind of effort as processing soldiers for an overseas movement, he added.
Lavinia Limon, Health and Human Services' director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, hailed the military support as "incredible." On very short notice, she said, they transformed a seldom-used facility -- one never used for children and older folks -- "into an environment that's safe, comfortable, inviting and quiet."
"I know the refugees have been just amazed," Limon continued. "They were worried they were coming to tents or some other kind of difficult environment. They found themselves treated warmly, not only in terms of the actual environment, but the interaction with the soldiers. It's really been something to watch."
The mix of military and civilian, government and nongovernment agency cultures presented a learning experience for all task force members, according to Health and Human Services' Ron Munia. "I think the general probably would like things to snap sometimes," he said. "We can snap, but it just doesn't work quite the way it does in the military. It will work, it just takes a little longer."
The civilians, in particular, learned from the crisp military meeting style, he said, and the remarkable way the military gets things done. The Army, for example, turned a long-mothballed dining facility into a clinic, he said.
"When I first saw it, ceiling tiles were falling down," Munia said. "When I came back, I was amazed. I didn't think paint could dry that fast. It was just that kind of an amazing effort that came through to put this all together."