George W. Smith deployed to Afghanistan as a civilian volunteer. He wanted to give back to the Army for providing him a long-term career with professional certifications and rewarding educational opportunities.
Smith got back more than he ever imagined because, as he put it, “my deployment was absolutely the adventure of a lifetime.”
He currently serves as the assistant product manager for the Machine Foreign Language Translation System, or MFLTS, a subordinate organization of the Project Manager Distributed Common Ground System – Army, known as PM DCGS-A, and the Program Executive Office for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors, or PEO IEWS. He assists the team with the development and delivery of the MFLTS, a system that augments human translation and assist Soldiers who need to communicate with foreign language speaking populations, by providing an automated foreign language speech and text language translation capability.
When the Program Executive Office began looking for a director of operations (forward) and field liaison to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisition, Logistics and Technology) to deploy to Afghanistan for all its systems, Smith decided to take on the challenge.
“I wanted to gain a better understanding of the big picture facing the Army, and by taking on this demanding opportunity, give back to the Army,” Smith explained.
Deploying to Afghanistan
He deployed November 25, 2015 for a six-month assignment at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, an installation operated jointly by the U.S. Army and Air Force. As the director of operations-forward and PEO liaison officer, Smith led the program management of more than 350 personnel with more than 3,000 warfighting systems in the Afghanistan Theater of operations.
“The PEO IEWS has the largest number of people and systems in theater when compared to the other PEO offices. In fact we had more theater assets than the rest of the PEOs combined,” he said of the PEO IEWS footprint.
These systems included Crew, the system that jams frequencies to neutralize the threat of improvised explosive devices; aerostats with multi-sensor force protection surveillance technology that protects the warfighter; Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment towers which have a combination of surveillance equipment positioned to monitor wide areas; and the DCGS-A, the family of systems which enhance battlefield situational awareness through intelligence analysis and fusion.
“I was able to see how all the systems work together, how all the systems fit together as a whole to protect our warfighters. It was very exciting but most all of I was impressed to see the quality of work that we do in the PEO,” Smith said. “The Soldiers are very proud of our systems used in theater, and it gave me great pride to be a part of their mission.”
The challenges of a deployment
Of course, there were daily challenges such as taskers with short suspenses, demanding schedules, and long hours with limited resources.
“There were limited resources in Afghanistan, my office only consisted of one administrative assistant and me. No one lived by the clock on the wall. We all worked the mission first clock that is what it took to get the job done,” he said.
Smith said he learned to make the best use of his resources and that perfection was not always an option or the goal.
“I certainly learned to think on my feet more capably and learned that timeliness is most important when it comes to serving the warfighter in theater. You simply don’t have time for perfection on every task. You give your best effort and move on. If more is needed, then give what is needed and keep moving.”
Smith said the harsh climate posed several challenges.
“Everything in the environment itself was a difficult.”
For example, Smith explained there were several assets that lightning damaged or destroyed and the high winds during storms would cause havoc.
“The aerostats are essential for force protection of these bases, so we had to get those sensor capabilities up and running as fast as possible. Everyone moved quickly and worked as a team to get that done. The Product Director for Aerostats has a great team in theater.”
Smith also had the opportunity to work with the PEO IEWS team and build a new aerostat site from the ground up, everything from site selection to ensuring the site was fully functional. Shortly after he redeployed an aerostat was moved from an existing location to the new site.
“There were bad guys all around us but we were never really afraid because of the Army systems protecting us. I came to realize that each and every system we field is critical to the survival of the warfighter.”
Smith came back to the states May 31 and returned to his job with a new perspective.
“My view is different now. It was a real eye opener to be in Afghanistan and to serve with the many dedicated professionals and warfighters. Back home in the states, civilians like me work on systems for warfighters but we never see how the systems are part of the big picture. In theater, you get up close with the dynamics of the operational Army. You get the warfighter’s insights”
He recommends a forward deployment for anyone who wants a growth opportunity in a fast-paced environment, wants to be on the front lines of defending the nation, and wants to show a little gratitude to the Army.
“Power failures, earthquakes, incoming rockets and insurgents were all part of the experience, but you get a feeling that what you do back here really makes a difference. What we do saves lives,” he recounted.
According to Smith, his numerous experiences in Afghanistan are hard to adequately describe but he put them into the context as the most important part of a 25- year-career in federal service which included time serving as a Federal Emergency Management Agency Manager during many recovery operations including the Hurricane Katrina response.
“It was great to be part of something so big and important. My deployment gave me more memories than you can shake a stick at!”