7:53 p.m. Molly Hatchet’s hit song “Flirting with Disaster” blares out of an iPhone as it vibrates on a glass coffee table in the living room of a townhouse outside the Capital Beltway in suburban Northern Virginia. A 34-year-old, medium-built, tattooed Air Force veteran sighs as he pauses the new “Call of Duty” game on his Xbox and leans over to verify the caller.
“Rggghhh, hello?” he grunts into the phone, tired from a long day at work. On the other end of the line is his supervisor.
“Hey brother,” the supervisor mumbles. “We got a situation. I need you here in an hour.”
“What’s going on?” he asks the supervisor.
“Can’t talk about it over the phone, just get here!”
Forty-five minutes and two cups of coffee later, the man pulls up to a warehouse and slams the shifter of his silver Toyota Tacoma into the park position. Now overly caffeinated and eager to find out what the emergency is, he unlocks the door of the warehouse and pushes it open to find 12 of his coworkers scurrying around, aimlessly looking for three missing connectors they need to do an op-test on a new satellite dish.
He turns and sees his supervisor standing there, his eyes fluttering with anxiety.
“Seriously,” the man says to his supervisor. “You called me all the way out here to help you find some connectors? This couldn’t have waited until morning? Those aren’t even the right connectors for that dish anyway!”
“That’s exactly why I called you in here, genius,” the supervisor yells. “Now find whatever it is you need to get this dish connected! You gotta have it out the door and on the flight line by zero-eight-hundred tomorrow!”
“Tomorrow?” the man said. “Where’s it going and who’s taking it?”
“If I was a betting man, I’d say that would be you,” the supervisor laughed. “We’ve got a situation going on right now overseas that requires some custom equipment and experienced analytics. A few gentlemen from the Pentagon will be briefing you in a couple of hours. Have your stuff ready to go and have a safe trip!”
Meanwhile back at the shop…
Whether embedded overseas supporting elite special operations units or in the United States assisting disaster relief efforts, NGA’s Expeditionary Operations Office, known as MSD, delivers mission-critical GEOINT capabilities for on-the-spot analysis anywhere in the world, sometimes within hours’ notice, according to Hector Montalvo, the logistics branch chief for MSD. Fittingly, the unit’s motto is “GEOINT anywhere, anytime.”
“Everybody on the team either deploys or has deployed in support of NGA operations,” said Montalvo. “Sometimes it’s necessary to have an analyst there on the spot to help ease decision makers’ uncertainty during times of crisis or on time-sensitive operations. Looking at a brief with some imagery sometimes isn’t enough to answer all the questions and keeping a steady flow of information is essential. That’s where we come in,” he said.
Curtiss L. Miller is a systems technician with the group.
“We have about 13 techs and they are a highly talented group with a lot of responsibility,” said Miller. “You have to really be a jack-of-all-trades to get the job done. It’s one thing to have a great workstation and unlimited resources, but in the expeditionary environment, everything has limits. With limited bandwidth and limited equipment, you still have to make things work.”
Most of the group served in the military before coming to NGA’s deployed services and have extensive backgrounds in information systems, networks, satellite communications and logistics. As NGA employees, they start their training at a warehouse facility located up winding rural roads through dense forests outside the Washington, D.C. area in the mountains of Northern Virginia. There, surrounded by farms and the faint sound of the occasional passing car, technicians have the space and peace of mind to test new equipment, engineer new capabilities and train for their next deployment. Similar training and operational support is conducted at another facility in the St. Louis metro area, as well as two major deployment support locations overseas.
“Most of the technical training is in-house,” said Jason N. Cagle, another technician and the warehouse manager at the facility. “I came to NGA when I got out of the Air Force as an imagery analyst, then I cross-trained as a geospatial analyst and then into a position as a systems engineer. I’ve done a dozen deployments overseas in support of OIF and OEF [Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom], and now I’m the warehouse manager here. It’s my job to take care of the facility. I love it. My job has kind of evolved with the mission,” he said.
Miller was a former operations specialist in the Navy.
“When I got out, I started in NGA’s deployed services as a contractor before being hired on as a government employee. I like it here because we are completely self-sufficient,” said Miller. “I can do everything from setting up the tents to driving the trucks to changing the oil on generators.”
The readiness process for deployment usually takes about six months and varies from person to person, said Cagle.
“Everybody comes from different environments and everybody has a strong suit,” Cagle said. “But when they come here, they need to be familiar with everything because if the equipment goes down, they are the only ones there to fix it.”
The process consists of learning everything from information system operations and maintenance, geospatial applications and data types, all the way to generator maintenance and small-arms training.
“We went through some ‘crash and bang’ courses,” said Joseph A. Valenti, another technician and Air Force veteran. “They taught us everything from evasive driving techniques to weapons handling. There was even a course in hand-to-hand combat where we were had to demonstrate how to get up off the ground in an altercation.”
Valenti said the group didn’t always carry weapons on deployment, but started implementing weapons training when the Afghanistan war kicked off after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
“Me and Cagle were with the second team of analysts to pull into Afghanistan after 9/11,” Valenti said. “Back then, it was like the Wild West where we were at. The security perimeter of the base we were on consisted of concertina wire and some little cones. People were getting shot all the time and we were always taking a lot of fire from mortars and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades].”
“People were getting shot all the time and we were always taking a lot of fire from mortars and RPGs.”
Cagle said, “When we got there, some bulldozers had just come in and made some six-foot dirt berms and threw some wire on it. That was really all the security there was at the time.”
Since then, the deployed services team has trained on the use of 9mm pistols and M4 carbine rifles, Cagle said.
“Where we carry and what we carry depends on the environment,” said Miller. “If we are on a big base like Bagram, we might only carry a side arm,” he said, referring to the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan. “But if we are going out to some of the [smaller bases] where there is less security, we carry the long guns.”
Not for the faint-hearted
Training is important in any workplace, but when your job description may include being fired upon, it is life or death.
“It can get pretty harry out there and the training is really important,” Miller said. “I’ve been shot at more times since I joined the deployed services than I ever did in the military. I spent 90 percent of my time in the Navy on a ship, so that kind of stuff wasn’t really anything to worry about,” he said.
“Now, I’ve been on Black Hawks where we have had to make quick drops in altitude so the crew could engage enemy forces because we were taking fire.“
Cagle said with the inherently dangerous responsibility the group takes on and the limited resources available to them in the combat zone, field medical courses are also provided as part of the training.
“Every deployer on our team goes through basic combat first aid that way they know how to apply a tourniquet and all that stuff,” Cagle said.
Uncertainty is an inherent factor for members of the Deployed Services Team.
“You never really know what’s going to happen,” said Miller. “You never know when one of those one-in-a-million rounds is going to come into your hooch. We took some heavy fire from some large mortar rounds inside the base I was at in Iraq back in ‘06. The concussion blew me across my desk and cracked all the windows and blew out some of the tires of our white Chevy truck,” he said. “A lot of guys got hurt in that one.”
“It’s all part of the job, you know,” said Valenti. “I’m not a desk jockey by any means. I like to get out there and get my hands dirty.”
Once their training is completed and the technicians are deployable, they have a wide variety of mission sets to facilitate.
“I’ve done about a dozen overseas deployments since ’02 and at least 30 in the U.S. supporting everything from Super Bowls to hurricane response,” Valenti said. “No two missions are the same.”
“You never know when one of those one-in-a-million rounds is going to come into your hooch.”
“Adaptability is the key,” said Valenti. “We are there primarily as technicians, but there have been plenty of times where I’ve jumped in to help out the analysts too,” he said. “It’s not like we get there and get set up and then say, ‘All right guys, we’re up and running, we’re going to bed now. Have fun.’ We are all one team and we are staying until the mission is done. Actually being there and having that direct relationship with soldiers and airmen who are using the imagery is irreplaceable. You can’t put a value on having someone there on the spot to keep things going.”
Besides supporting NGA’s missions overseas, the MSD also provides NGA assets for disaster relief efforts in the U.S., using resources such as deployable laptops with satellite communications all the way up to the vehicle-based Domestic Mobile Integrated Geospatial Intelligence System (DMIGS) and the Mobile Integrated Geospatial System (MIGS). The DMIGS was built on a commercial fire truck chassis and engineered by analysts and technicians. It has served as a roving NGA operations center since 2006, containing everything analysts need to deliver critical GEOINT to relief efforts and authorities to help clear roadways and work out emergency routes during natural disasters and special events. The MIGS provides similar capabilities, but is built on a military Humvee platform.
“We all have to get our commercial driver’s license to drive the DMIGS,” said Miller. “It’s totally worth the training though. It’s really been a great asset for us. I’ve helped support every hurricane or disaster since 2006 and all we ever need to do our job is fuel and we’re ready to roll."
In addition to IT and communications equipment, MSD maintains equipment to deploy and sustain analytical and support personnel in austere environments. This includes everything needed to perform their jobs home or abroad, from tents and sleeping bags to weapons and body armor and ready-to-eat meals. The unpredictable nature of the job keeps them on their toes and requires a constant state of readiness for unexpected requirements.
Valenti said, “You never really know what’s coming next. It’s always something new whether you’re in the states or overseas; you’ve got to kind of just roll with what’s going on.”
Miller said he loves his job, but it’s not for everybody.
“I’ve had guys come up to me after our base got attacked and tell me that they didn’t sign up for this,” Miller said. “The next thing you know, they are on a plane going back home. It’s okay though. I always tell them there are plenty of important things to do back there too.”
Cagle said he likes the job because you don’t do the same thing every day.
“You never know what you’re getting into when you come to work. If you’re watching the news on the weekend and something significant happens, you can get a pretty good feel for what’s coming your way on Monday morning; that is, if they don’t call you in before then,” Cagle said. “The next thing you know, they tell you to go home and get a bag and you’re driving to Fort Bragg the next day to get on a C-17. You can never really be sure.”
MSD maintains relationships and persistent communications with the NGA Support Teams worldwide and other customers for humanitarian and disaster relief support as well as military operations to anticipate requirements. MSD’s constant state of readiness ensures equipment and personnel are prepared as much as possible for deployments prior to an actual event occurring.
“I’ve had guys come up to me after our base got attacked and tell me that they didn’t sign up for this. The next thing you know, they are on a plane going back home. It’s okay though. I always tell them there are plenty of important things to do back there too.”
The sound of a ringing phone erupts from the corner of a workstation surrounded by a half-full, warm can of Diet Coke, the latest issue of Men’s Health and an old SuperCircuits catalog. A door opens in the back of the room, exposing a meeting room full of technicians and several large video-teleconferencing screens.
“It’s your turn,” one of the techs says to a new guy, laughing with anticipation.
The lone, new technician, still wet behind the ears from training, paces slowly over to the phone and hesitantly reaches his hand to the receiver.
“Military Support,” he squeaks, barely getting the words out as he recalls all the deployment stories his coworkers have told him over the past six months.
On the other end of the line, there is silence followed by a baritone voice.
“It’s time. Are you ready to roll out?”