Feature   Know Your Military

Face of Defense: Mayor Deploys During COVID-19 Crisis

Feb. 1, 2021 | BY Katie Lange , DOD News

Many National Guard members are multitaskers, but it's possible that no one is more versed at it than Army Maj. Jacob Day. As the mayor of Salisbury, Maryland, he had just begun to grapple with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic when he learned he would be trading in the reigns of city government so he could deploy to Africa for a year. 

Day, a Maryland Army National Guard information operations officer, deployed in June to Djibouti as part of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa. The 38-year-old had been waiting for those orders since he was commissioned into the Guard in 2009. What he didn't know was that the orders would come just as the biggest dilemma of his political career broke out.

A man in combat uniform smiles beside a unit logo.
Army Capt. Jacob Day
Army Capt. Jacob Day, the information operations deputy director and special technical operations chief of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa, poses for a photo at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Oct. 28, 2020. In his civilian capacity, Day serves as the mayor of Salisbury, Md. He is one of only three full-time mayors to have deployed in support of the war on terror.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Dana J. Cable
VIRIN: 201028-F-XB934-1035

Army Maj. Jacob Day
Job Title: Information Operations Deputy Director, CJTF-HOA Special Technical Operations Chief
Hometown: Salisbury, Maryland
Stationed: Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti
Unit: 110th Information Operations Battalion, Maryland Army National Guard

Day was born and raised in Salisbury, but his education took him all over. After getting an undergraduate degree in architecture and a master's degree in urban design, he earned a second master's in environmental policy from the University of Oxford in England. Day studied and traveled through Europe and North Africa for a few years, but he eventually missed his home and returned to Salisbury in 2008. His military service and life in public office came next. 

So, how did he get into public life? And how has deployment affected his career, especially during a major crisis? Below, he fills us in on the ways he's juggled both careers and family life while trying to keep the stresses of each at bay.

A man with hands on his hips smiles.A crowd is blurred out behind him.
Mayor Jacob Day
Salisbury Mayor Jacob Day at a community event.
Photo By: Courtesy of Jacob Day
VIRIN: 210127-O-ZZ999-094

First off, how did you get into politics? 

There was a fairly toxic environment when I moved back to Salisbury in 2009, particularly in the blogosphere that was a departure from the civility and seriousness that many of us expect in civic life. The mayor at the time and some of the members of City Council talked to me about running in 2009 and 2011, and I simply wasn't ready. But I decided when I was ready in 2013 that none of that was going to matter. Our city needed desperate changes. I was going to plow right through it, and we were going to fight and win. And we did. I was elected to the Salisbury City Council in the spring of 2013. 

I was then elected mayor in 2015. I was re-elected in 2019 and I started my second term shortly before deploying, so I've been mayor for about five years.

You joined the Maryland Army National Guard before politics. What made you do both? 

Both I can trace to my childhood in Salisbury. I remember dreaming of being in the Army, running around playing GI Joe. As a 7-year-old, I wrote that, 'I wanted to be mayor one day.' I don't think I fully understood what that meant, but what I did know was that I liked my town and I wanted it to be better. It wasn't until I found myself involved in organizations where public policy was being debated and shaped, when it came to the places and placemaking that I decided I wanted to be involved in urban policy decision-making. I worked for the American Institute of Architecture Students, and we advocated for policy changes in the architecture profession that we thought would make for a better world — a more humane way of building our communities. That experience and the people that I met inspired me to eventually pursue public office.

As for the Army, I was 26, living in the U.K. [United Kingdom] and missing home a little bit, and I decided I would finally fulfill that lifelong ambition to serve in the military. I was starting to get a little older – though, in hindsight, 26 is young, and I was a baby — but I didn't want to go any further in life without serving. And I've ended up loving it.

An aerial view of a river that runs through a downtown area.
Salisbury, Maryland
The Wicomico River runs through downtown Salisbury, Md.
Photo By: Courtesy of Jacob Day
VIRIN: 210126-O-ZZ999-086

Tell me about Salisbury and the challenges it faced when COVID-19 hit.

We've been remarkably resilient. Salisbury is a fairly small city with a large region with which we are economically interdependent. We had a downtown that was all but dead 10 years ago, but now we're Maryland's fastest growing city 10 years running. We have fairly fast-growing pharmaceutical and manufacturing sectors. Food processing is also big. The corporate headquarters of Perdue Farms, a multinational, privately owned company, is headquartered there. The tourism industry is our largest industry. The beaches in our region are economically important, and coronavirus obviously affects us from a tourism perspective. The risk of fewer visitors and fewer opportunities to gather together is not just the economic impact but that you're less close and thus less able to navigate tough issues together, arm in arm, as a community. 

Did your military training play a role in how you dealt with the pandemic? 

Oh, absolutely. Crisis response is something that I think comes naturally to many in the military, and developing a plan and responding to it without a painfully long delay is a critical skill. There were decisions that had to be made quickly, and we had to simultaneously execute and continuously plan.

Anytime we've had a crisis — whether it's a weather crisis, or a law enforcement event, or medical emergency — I think my military experience has always benefited me, and I couldn't be more grateful that I have that tool in my belt.

Seven soldiers stand spaced out on steps outside a building.
Group Photo
The Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa J39 Information Operations Directorate poses for a photo at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Oct. 28, 2020. Army Capt. Jacob Day (front left) serves as the CJTF-HOA information operations deputy director and special technical operations chief. In his civilian capacity, Day serves as mayor of Salisbury, Md. He is one of only three full-time mayors to have deployed in support of the war on terror.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Dana J. Cable
VIRIN: 201028-F-XB934-1005

Did you get a choice in this deployment? Was there much preparation/warning time? 

I was initially a cavalry officer before switching to information operations. I went into IO knowing the purpose of our battalion was to keep a constant team deployed on this Horn of Africa mission. So, if you're going into the 110th IO Battalion, you go there with the understanding that you will be deployed. When I was selected for [this team], I had enough warning … but there was a lot going on for our nation's mayors at that time. We were focused on coronavirus and the reckoning that our country was facing in the wake of the George Floyd protests. 

Also, a deployment like this requires a lot of preparatory work. You have to get your security clearances upgraded to a higher level. You've got to go through additional background checks and a variety of other things. It wasn't until all of those things were set that I felt it was a 100% certainty that I was going and that I could tell the public. Spinning people up without absolute confidence I was leaving would not have been fair.

[My unit] expected to have a little more time at home, but coronavirus had a vote, and coronavirus voted that we were going to quarantine for about two months at Fort Hood, Texas. So, things changed, and I had even less time than I had originally hoped to communicate what was getting ready to happen. It became very real, very fast. We did our mobilization at Fort Hood for two months and then arrived in Djibouti in August.

A crowd prepares to cut a ribbon in front of a mural on a building.
Community Event
The mayor of Salisbury, Md.,Jacob Day, prepares to cut a ribbon during an event in his community.
Photo By: Courtesy of Jacob Day
VIRIN: 210126-O-ZZ999-083

What was the transition like during such a vulnerable time for your community?

It was a difficult change to go through. One of the things that we did in response to coronavirus was I started a daily live show across multiple platforms to answer questions … every day at 5 p.m. One of our newspapers dubbed it ''Mayor TV.'' We addressed the data of the day and tools for people to get economic and employment assistance. So, to shut that off for the transition — that deep connectivity that was happening — was disruptive. I think people felt that. I felt it. It made the disconnection of deployment more tangible and measurable. However, my city administrator has picked this up with a style all her own and with great success.

But it was ultimately easier than I would have expected. I spent my time focusing on transitioning through the expression of confidence that my team had my trust and that we weren't a team that was competent because I was there — we were a team that was competent whether I was there or not. So, while I hope they still want me to come home, I know this — they have proven to themselves that they are good at their jobs. They know what I expect of them. They know what to do. It was really just about making sure that they didn't lose confidence in themselves and their abilities.

A man sits adjacent to a woman in a hijab.
Partner Building
Civil Affairs helps strengthen ties with Djiboutian local government officials, Nov. 30, 2020. Part of Army Maj. Jacob Day's mission as part of the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa is to work closely with the people of Djibouti to build trust and partnerships.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Charles T. Fultz
VIRIN: 201130-F-PI321-0013

Tell me about the mission in Africa and what you've been doing the past few months.

CJTF-HOA is America's 911 on the continent of Africa. We respond to crises when Americans are at risk in Africa. I work in a joint capacity, and one of the things we do is we plan and prepare. As an information operations officer and as the special programs chief, I make sure the commander's desired effects are met in the information world. That can take all sorts of forms — things I can't get into. But one of the things that I'm really enjoying is the partnership with Djibouti, which is very important. It's a country that not many Americans know about … but it's a strategically important place, and our partnership with them matters. I'm working on planning engagements with them, on partnering with our civil affairs teams and expanding influence in the area. One of the things we want to do is build trust in American forces here because we plan to be here, I believe, for a long time. That means the national government, as well as the local governments and civil society here — we want to make sure the Djiboutians trust us and that we deliver on our promises. So, many of those things I'm working on shaping on a daily basis. I'm really proud of the work that our team has been able to engage in. It's an interesting time to be in East Africa. Things are changing, but our mission and our commitment remain.

You've done an ultra marathon and other running events while there. What has that been like? 

Yes! I did the Marine Corps ultra-marathon, which is the 50K. I rucked it, and I talked some other people who are nearly as foolish as I am into rucking it with me. So, we did a 31.1-mile ruck with 45-pound packs in circles around Camp Lemonnier. It was great. And when I say it was great, I mean, of course, it was awful. But it was a good experience. I like pushing myself, and it was good team building. It was about an eight-hour event, so, pretty grueling. But some of my team was out there waiting for me at the end, too, which was really nice at 2 a.m., a reminder that I'm blessed with a great team here as well. I also did the Army 10-Miler in preparation for that ultra-marathon.

The biggest thing you battle in Djibouti is the air quality. Even in the hottest country on Earth, the heat you can get over, but the air quality is a little rough on the lungs. I have admittedly taken it a bit easy since then, trying to get my knees to recover, but my plan is to next run the Salisbury Marathon, which is a Boston qualifier, virtually from Djibouti.

Three men holding a U.S. flag stand near barbed-wire fences.
Proud Flag
Army Maj. Jacob Day and two colleagues hold a U.S. flag while doing an ultra marathon at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. The trio carried rucksacks for 50 kilometers (31.1 miles) in honor of Veterans Day 2020.
Photo By: Courtesy of Jacob Day
VIRIN: 210127-O-ZZ999-097

In the next few months, you'll finish in Djibouti and return home. What will those months be like? 

It's going to be, I'd say, significantly more intense. … But the upside of that is time goes even faster when you're busy. On top of that, I hope that we'll get to see some of the fruits of our labor. One of the things about deployment is that not everything is tied with a pretty bow within a nine-month period. Some things get handed off to our successors. That's true as mayor, that's true as a soldier, and that's true as a planner — no matter what you do. But [my unit] benefits from the fact that we know who our replacements are. We're in contact with them already and starting that planning. So, there should be an increased level of activity and accomplishment from our team. I'm excited about that.

Are you in the loop on what's going on back home? Is that even possible, given all your task force work? 

Yes, it is possible. I had the good fortune of talking to then-lieutenant, previous mayor and soon-to-be U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg before I left. He was mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and deployed to Afghanistan. I've been able to talk to Mayor Pete a couple of times as the only other — and I don't say this lightly — but the only other living person who's been through this. Three of us have been deployed as full-time active mayors. The third was [Army] Maj. Brent Taylor, and Maj. Taylor was killed in 2018 in an insider attack in Afghanistan. Maj. Taylor is on my mind often here, and my team had the good fortune to meet with his wife while we mobilized at Fort Hood.

Talking to Mayor Pete, one of the things he advised me of is — and I've heard this from others, too — 'Just take care of your job while deployed. Appoint a person to take charge of the city while you're gone, trust them, and everything will be waiting for you when you get home.' And that's been so true. We stay busy here. There's not time to do two jobs. Thankfully, with the power of the internet and social media and email, my team has been able to keep me up to speed on what's going on. I also get to read about it and occasionally ask questions. What I don't do is direct anything or give them orders or dictate anything. There isn't time for that, and I don't want to because, frankly, I need to stay focused on my job here.

A man gives a small girl a piggyback ride on his shoulders.
Shoulder Ride
Salisbury Mayor Jacob Day spends time with one of his young daughters.
Photo By: Courtesy of Jacob Day
VIRIN: 210127-O-ZZ999-099

You also have a wife and two little girls at home. How do you keep up with family life on deployment? 

I've been able to talk to my girls, who are four and five, almost every day. [My wife] Liz and the girls will call, and I'll call when I can get access to a phone. Given the nature of my work, I don't have access to outside communication devices outside of the military ones for most of the day, but when I do, I try to connect to them. Sometimes that means I'm up until 3:30 or 4 in the morning, and then up early, as well. But you do what you have to do to talk to your kids. There's no way I can say I would choose to be away from them — I wouldn't. But at the same time, we've found lots of ways to connect through stories. I get to read to them. I've got a couple of stuffed animals here that we play on the phone with. It's not the same as being at home and giving piggyback rides and snuggles, but one day — one day — I'll have that again. 

Two men facing each other hold up their right hands inside a C-130 airplane. A U.S. flag hangs in the background.
Promotion Ceremony
Army Maj. Gen. Lapthe C. Flora, left, administers a promotion ceremony for Maj. Jacob Day while deployed with the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa in Djibouti.
Photo By: Air Force
VIRIN: 201128-F-HE813-2022

You have a lot going on at all times. What helps you stay calm and focused? 

I'm a planner, and by nature, that often means I'm always thinking about what's ahead. What I've tried to do here is trust the system. If you're going to build a system for yourself, trust it. So, when I put it on paper, that's the plan — that's where it is, that's where it'll live, and it doesn't need to live in my head anymore. My friends back home will not be at all surprised to hear that means I have a wall covered with Post-It notes in my CLU [containerized living unit].

I was incredibly worried in the early days about what the effects of deployment would be on my marriage and on my two little girls. But you can either worry the year away or you can improve yourself. I'm removed from all of the stressors and expectations and normalcy of life while I'm here, and I've been working on improving myself. I've worked to recognize my own failings and weaknesses. I'm hopeful that when I get back, I can continue to keep at bay the stress from weighty issues and weighty jobs. So, I think giving up some of those stressors in my life was freeing, and I feel good about that. 

I also try to write a lot more. I'm journaling a bit and writing about my day, which also helps unpack all that. I have a weekly call with my pastor back home. That helps a ton, just being able to talk through issues and challenges with him. I was also fortunate enough to get baptized in the Gulf of Tadjoura, which is right in the Gulf of Aden here. The chaplain here, [Army] Maj. Lockwood, it was his first baptism, so I don't think either of us will ever forget it. It was a pretty beautiful spot and I was one of several soldiers being baptized, so the shared experience has built close bonds here. There's no doubt that has helped relieve a lot of stress for me.

If you ever have down time, what do you like to do with it? 

I've been reading a lot and completing the Command and General Staff Officer's Course. I've been reading a book called ''Accidental Presidents'' that was sent to me by a friend back home. I'm also rereading ''Shortest Way Home,'' which is Pete Buttigieg's book. Occasionally, I watch a little bit of Netflix on my phone. And then, running — that is probably the best destressor and where I do my best thinking.