Defense Department Plays a Key Role in Disaster Resilience

The Mayo Clinic defines resilience as the “ability to adapt well and recover quickly after stress, adversity, trauma, or tragedy.” Helping a community overcome extreme challenges is exactly what the Department of Defense (DOD) strives to accomplish when it is requested – under the Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) parameters – to respond to domestic disasters. By working with its state and federal partners, DOD serves as a significant force multiplier for resilience during catastrophes directly affecting the United States. Moreover, many military personnel actually consider the ability to provide emergency assistance to their fellow citizens to be a distinct honor.

If properly used, the U.S. military can in fact be a key contributor to the whole-of-community approach during state and/or national emergencies. Both the National Guard and the nation’s active-duty (federal) forces can quickly help build shelters, provide medical treatment, transport supplies and people, supply electrical power and fuel, and much more to mitigate some of the most devastating effects of major disasters – both natural and manmade.

Supporting Civilians at Home & Abroad 

U.S. naval and military forces have certainly proved their usefulness during major peacetime crises throughout history – including, in recent years, such disasters as Hurricane Katrina (2005), Hurricane Sandy (2012), the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear meltdown (2011), and the 2010 earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. In the United States itself, both National Guard and federal troops provided security and material resources – food, water, and medical supplies, for example – for the victims of both Katrina and Sandy; during the latter superstorm, they also assisted with water pumping, fuel distribution, and environmental sampling.

During major disasters overseas, DOD supported the civilian authorities of Haiti, Chile, and Japan with crucial supplies, transportation assets, medical assistance, search and extraction operations, aerial surveillance, and both road and debris clearance – all of which would also be available, of course, during a domestic disaster response within the United States.

Support activities such as those spelled out above can certainly help reduce stress on the survivors, the local areas impacted, and – to at least some degree – the nation at large, as local citizens and the American people watch cascading events unfold both on television and through social media. There also is a huge albeit unquantifiable psychological benefit derived from DOD participation – for example, in the form of a large hospital ship such as the USNS Comfort berthed offshore – in the response to a major catastrophic event. Recognition during a response that help is on the way, or already on the scene, can generate a strong psychological boost and serve as a clear signal of hope to those in need.

DOD operations in recent years have proved to be a valuable tool in building resilience: (a) by better preparing personnel and their family members prior to, during, and after deployment; and (b) by coping with other unexpected contingencies. Over the past several years, in fact, DOD has substantially increased its “bounce back” resources in the form of additional chaplains and mental health personnel, the better utilization of resources, and increased access to outside and nontraditional methods of support. This trend toward a higher focus on and funding of behavioral health support is expected to continue into the foreseeable future.

Nurturing Relationships & Growing Awareness 

One benefit of an increased awareness of how important resilience is to the warriors returning from overseas is that DOD is now emphasizing resilience during domestic support operations as well. The inclusion of traumatic-stress response teams – specifically mental health specialists and chaplain counselors – in DOD’s own disaster response planning not only helps survivors and their family members, but also the first responders themselves, in their efforts to cope with and overcome extremely stressful circumstances.

The same DOD stress response teams are also available to help civilians – if and when requested under the guidelines spelled out for DSCA response operations – and DOD officials consider such teams to be a core element of many DSCA contingency response packages. Current DOD catastrophic domestic response planning is also now focusing more attention on the disabled, diabetics, the elderly, and other at-risk populations, because they are often the people immediately and most seriously affected by a sudden disaster. However, the tragic Washington Navy Yard shooting on 16 September 2013 is a recent example of just how important stress response teams are to all survivors of and those impacted by disasters.

Considering the future resource constraints the nation as a whole is now facing, the Department of Defense may well play an even more important role in the nation’s overall response construct, particularly in the intangible aspects of building and maintaining resilience. Fortunately, many former obstacles to using a truly effective and integrated civilian and military approach to domestic emergency responses already have been addressed and resolved. For example, a high priority in any DOD support provided to civilian authorities is to maintain and/or restore public confidence in the government’s ability both to handle crises quickly and effectively and to provide prompt emergency support.

As an increasingly important partner in the whole-of-community approach to responding to and managing catastrophic events, DOD helps to instill confidence and to provide concrete assurances that the nation as a whole will be able to successfully overcome even the direst of circumstances. To build an even greater resilience capacity – and even, in a worst-case scenario, be able to handle the fallout of a nuclear detonation within its borders – it is imperative that the nation’s civilian and military authorities continue to expand and improve their current working relationships and to coordinate their planning efforts for the future. By joining forces, the nation can and will overcome any future challenge the U.S. homeland may face – now, and for many years to come.


The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Air Force, or any other federal agency.

Jamie Stowe

Major Jamie Stowe, USAF, is a medical plans and operations officer who has more than 14 years of experience in emergency planning and response operations with the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army. He has not only completed a Department of Defense planning fellowship but also has been directly involved in numerous contingency operations – including those following Hurricanes Rita, Ike, Gustav, and Sandy, the Japanese tsunami and nuclear plant responses, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. He holds a master’s degree in Business Administration and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.



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