Contracting personnel sharpen skills during field exercise

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah — A group of dedicated Airmen sometimes overlooked and even taken for granted are an integral part of the mission and, in a deployed environment, have a huge impact on operational continuity and ultimately mission success at the tip of spear.

Recently, Airmen from the Contracting Directorate, 75th Comptroller Squadron and 75th Judge Advocate, specializing in contracts, participated in a field exercise at the Base Operations Readiness and Training Area to simulate scenarios specific to their mission.

While Airmen participated in regular drills and simulations such as donning their chemical gear and self-aid buddy care, they then went a step further and responded to training scenarios specific to their mission and the unique challenges and circumstances encountered in a deployed environment.

“We are doing military training, but also technical job scenario training as well, for both our finance management folks as well as our contracting personnel,” said Master Sgt. Christopher Castro, Contracting Directorate superintendent. “Normally when we head downrange, we work together as kind of an integrated unit. We buddy up with finance, and finance with contracting.”

Castro said Airmen participating in the exercise underwent several realistic training scenarios that they could experience while deployed including crafting blanket purchase agreements, negotiations with contractors, and number of other situations that puts them in a stressful situation where they have to understand and manage an abundance of workload.

Lt. Col. Rochelle Smith, Deputy Division Chief of Installation Contracting, explained the importance of this specific type of training for contracting officers and finance personnel.

“The only way for our military personnel to be ready for deployment is to get hands-on experience they need state side. The Air Force has really taken this seriously and has fully integrated state side contracting with our job while deployed,” Smith said. “This has become a successful strategy, because we all, civilian and military, practice what we do here in the states, and what we do deployed down range.

“A specific example is, while deployed we have had to buy dining facility services contracts, something the Air Force does both state side and down range. We have encountered circumstances where our sister service military counterparts have said, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t know how to buy or monitor food service contracts,’ and we have been able to step up and say we do. This is something the Air Force does all the time,” Smith continued.

Several of the personnel participating in the exercise have recently returned from a deployment and many of the training scenarios directly mirrored some of the real-world experiences they encountered.

Capt. Alicia Ferris, Contracting Directorate, recently returned from Afghanistan.

“I have been in the Air Force for 12 years as prior enlisted, and have now been an officer in contracting for six years. I have had military training and experience, but never this kind of job-related training, before deployment,” Ferris said. “Occasionally situations would arise where I didn’t know how to do certain things, so I had to find the answers, learn and make judgement calls, on the spot.”

Ferris said the biggest thing she learned during deployment was that occasionally, she was not authorized to buy something. During these situations she would have to think critically and ask herself, how can we get the mission done? How can we work around this? How can we turn this into a yes, to make the purchase? Or, is there anything else with a similar capabilities, we can use as a substitute?

“When I was at the main camp, I was doing the bigger buys, like getting private civilian security contracts for base visits or aviation contracts for civilian aircraft that can fly camp to camp,” Ferris said. “While working at the food field ordering office, there were times when the program officer was unavailable, so I would have to go outside the wire into the community and negotiate with the local vendors to secure supplemental food contracts, or any other items that our guys on the front lines might need.

“In the AOR, I would have really benefited from this kind of training, and think it’s a great thing the Air Force is doing for us and especially the new Airmen,” Ferris continued.

Staff Sgt. Tyler Davidson, Contracting Directorate, agreed and explained some of the big picture challenges of a contracting officer’s job.

He said the specific requirements are dependent on the deployed location.

For example, if we are going to the middle of the jungle we might have to buy mosquito nets, because we don’t have enough or didn’t bring them with us. Maybe the equipment we did bring on the plane broke down in the field, and now we need to replace it. Maybe the plane broke down, now we have to buy parts out there. It really could be any number of things, Davidson said.

“Anything you can think of that would be on a base, contracting more than likely has a hand on making sure it got there,” he said.

Davidson said the training he and other Airmen exercised recently is focused on the fact that contracting finance and legal need to be able to hit the dirt and do whatever they need to do, as soon as they get off the plane, when deployed.