Preparing for deployment is tough enough, but during a pandemic the challenges grow exponentially, especially when it comes to the coordination between incoming and outgoing units.
To address those challenges and continue a practice that has increased deploying unit success for nearly 16 years, the U.S. Army Financial Management Command held a Theater Orientation Conference in an all virtual environment for the deploying 175th Financial Management Support Center and the redeploying 469th FMSC recently.
“The purpose of the TOC is to give the units getting ready to deploy the width and depth of all things finance and comptroller related to their upcoming deployment,” said Mark Burton, USAFMCOM plans and operations specialist. “They get to talk to units overseas, to their peers at Army Forces Command, to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, and to us.
“Anything they need to know, they interact with them and get a good handle on what’s going on,” Burton added.
Key topics discussed during this year’s TOC included changes to theater entitlements for Soldiers and how the finance and comptroller community can work together better to ensure Soldiers from the active and reserve components get paid faster after entering theater.
“The TOC is very valuable for the incoming unit in all areas, and the outgoing unit may hear of some small things they haven’t heard,” said Lt. Col. Frederick Stubbs, 469th FMSC deputy director. “The outgoing unit provides very valuable information and plays a major role toward the success of the TOC and the incoming unit.”
The virtual conference brought in personnel from around the globe, including Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Carson, Colorado; Indianapolis, Rome, New York; Hawaii; Kuwait; and Germany
“Normally they all come together in one room and we go over all the details, but the real benefits of the TOC often come during the interactions that occur during breaks and after hours at our dinner,” explained Burton. “We can go through the briefings using a variety of virtual environments, but the real trick for us was figuring out how to create those same ‘offline’ discussions.”
To solve that challenge, Burton and the USAFMCOM Information Technology team set up smaller virtual rooms, where participants could go during the briefings and on breaks to chat back and forth.
“It was a challenge, and I can’t tell you the number of hours everyone put in to make sure we had everything good-to-go, but it was a lot and worked out better than we expected,” said Burton. “The communication system was great, and we practiced all this stuff over and over.
“Just like any other weapon system, you have to practice over and over before you go to war, and that’s what we did,” he continued.
While communication challenges were expected, there were some unintended positive consequences that the virtual environment brought about.
“People seemed more open to sharing information and asking questions in the virtual environment from what we’ve seen in the past, which generated a lot of good discussion,” said Burton as he speculated that people felt more comfortable speaking up while behind a computer screen and that they knew this was their best chance at getting important questions answered.
“The financial management support units and detachments were far more vocal this year, and that allowed higher-level leadership to hear a lot more feedback, which is a good thing,” he added.
Event organizers also said tracking the attendance for financial management certification purposes was also easier in the virtual environment.
While there were benefits, Stubbs said the virtual environment can’t replicate in-person interaction.
“I feel you gather more data information with face-to-face communication…but when you have a pandemic like this it can’t be avoided,” he explained. “USAFMCOM did an outstanding job with having everything set up for the virtual environment, but the schedule was shortened due to the time zone difference.”
Burton agreed that was an issue.
“We had to coordinate the schedules of 65 people across multiple time zones to make sure we didn’t interrupt people’s normal sleep cycles,” he explained. “So, we had to prioritize what was important, but, in some ways, that focused the conversation and made sure we stayed on task.”
Still, both Burton and Stubbs said they look forward to the next TOC in person.
“This accomplished the mission, but there’s something you can’t put your finger on when you sit across the room from your replacement,” said Burton. “I’m not sure what the next TOC will be like, but whatever the case, we will be ready for it.
“We’ve pioneered a way this can be done without losing a lot of little things, so we’re ready,” he continued.
TOCs have been an integral tool in preparing finance and comptroller units to deploy since 2004, during the height of the Iraq War. They started as a DFAS-led initiative, but transitioned in 2019 to USAFMCOM after the command realigned as a two-star command with a larger mission set.
“The transfer was a big change,” recalled Burton. “DFAS has more of a defense-wide look, and we brought in a lot more focus on Army specific matters, which is good because you have one Army unit replacing another.”
While USAFMCOM is now at the helm, Stubbs and Burton both said the roles DFAS and USAFMCOM continue to play is invaluable, even after the TOC.
“The USAFMCOM team has been excellent, and the communication and teamwork has been outstanding between USAFMCOM, DFAS and our staff,” Stubbs elaborated. “The [Department of Defense Financial Management Regulation] updates, teleconference with Army banking, and E-Commerce have all played major roles to our success in theater.”