The Navy Reserve Chief of Information Headquarters (NR CHINFO HQ) convened its first ever virtual drill weekend on April 5.
Joined by reservists from the Defense Media Activity (DMA), the all-hands drill was conducted entirely over video-teleconference with 41 participants from across the country. Videoconferencing enabled reservists to maintain readiness and come together as a team despite the social distancing and travel challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Within just a few weeks, the COVID-19 crisis has forced Americans from all walks of life to alter their normal patterns of behavior in order to stay healthy and contain the spread of the virus, and the U.S. Navy Reserve is leading the way.
With many states issuing shelter-in-place orders and federal health agencies urging all Americans to telework and avoid travel when possible, Capt. Mike Dean, commanding officer of NR CHINFO HQ, sought a solution to keep the unit’s training on schedule. “Conducting our regularly scheduled April drill weekend would not have been in the best interest of the health and safety of our Sailors,” said Dean. “So we needed to pursue an alternative course of action.”
There are limits to what can be accomplished remotely. “The goal of a drill weekend is to provide training to our Sailors,” Dean said. “Video will never take the place of in-person interaction, but under these challenging circumstances, we were able to use video teleconferencing to have face-to-face conversations to build camaraderie and hold each other accountable.”
Adherence to uniform standards was an important part of coming together as a unit. “Military bearing, especially for junior members, is something that can be quickly eroded,” Dean said. “We are part of the Armed Forces, we wear the uniform when we drill in person, and a virtual drill should be no different.”
Capt. Anastasia Quanbeck, U.S. Navy Deputy Chief of Information, joined the virtual drill.“Sometimes the Reserve is ahead of the curve," she told those assembled. "We often have had to work virtually to accomplish our mission, so this is our natural environment. You are setting the way ahead. A lot of people are going to have to figure this out.”
She added that one of the biggest challenges is striking the balance between which activities need to be done on site and which can be done remotely. Quanbeck pointed out that while much of the world is shutting down, the work of the Navy’s public affairs officers has only become more demanding. “The need to communicate has been unrelenting, and it’s a constantly changing environment,” she said.
Cmdr. Brenda Way, acting Commanding Officer, Navy Reserve Defense Media Activity, attended from the West Coast. “CHINFO and DMA work hand-in-hand on a regular basis, and this past drill weekend we stepped it up a notch with an entire telework drill,” she said. “Having the ability to complete an entire drill weekend in this manner was extremely valuable.”
Chief Mass Communication Specialist Meagan Klein and Ensign Victoria Piccoli, two of NR CHINFO HQ’s newest members, developed the program and coordinated logistics to ensure a seamless experience for all involved. Members spent weeks planning and preparing for their various responsibilities, and an all-hands video conference the week before allowed Sailors to familiarize themselves with a platform many had never used.
“This pandemic is obviously a tragedy,” said Klein, “but many of the resulting pain points of social distancing and limited travel are forcing us to innovate, and we will ultimately come through this a stronger and more resilient force. I am extremely proud of how our Sailors performed this weekend. Ownership and teamwork were the two keys to making this teleworking weekend a success.”
Even before maximum flexibility for telework was authorized, the unit was already designated for flex-drill with individual members authorized for telework. However, the unit had never attempted a remote formation on this scale. “One challenge we faced when planning and executing the drill was trying to ensure that all members would be actively engaged,” said Piccoli. “Working in a virtual space means focusing on more than just what’s on the computer screen. It involves thinking about how our unit members will interact with the content presented.”
Officers and enlisted personnel developed nearly a dozen presentations, leveraging their civilian skills to build an agenda spanning topics related to COVID-19, public affairs and internal Navy Reserve matters. The unit’s Ombudsman provided an update on the services her office provides, and the Command Fitness Leader led a unit physical training session to demonstrate exercises that can be done at home.
Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kevin O’Brien, who has served in the Navy for 17 years on reserve and active duty, opened the virtual drill with a presentation on writing and editing photo captions.
“I’ve seen time and again, when faced with immense challenges and obstacles, my shipmates will find new and creative ways of fulfilling the mission,” he said. “I feel this was perhaps the most productive drill weekend I’ve experienced. The live chat feature of video conferencing allowed our members, both enlisted and officers, to be engaged at all times and ask questions or provide insights while training was happening simultaneously.”
“If I were going to give one piece of advice to other units planning a virtual drill, it would be to start planning earlier rather than later,” Dean said. “Getting everyone comfortable with the technology is often the biggest hurdle, and having several weeks lead time gave us an opportunity to take suggestions for potential topics and plan thoughtful sessions.”
Social distancing and self-isolation have imposed new and unprecedented strains on our society, and everyone is eager for the day they can return to normal social interactions. In the meantime, activities like the virtual drill weekend demonstrate how an agile Navy Reserve force is adapting to the present crisis and establishing new procedures to ensure continuity of operations in future crises.