Riding in a V-22 Osprey over the jungles of Liberia in search of suitable terrain to build treatment camps during the 2014 Ebola epidemic, young Army engineer Maj. Anthony Barbina had no idea he was preparing for a job he would fill years later. All he knew was his skills as a burgeoning military leader were being tested.
“People were in rough shape, gaunt and haggard; throwing up all the time,” said now Lt. Col. Barbina, U.S. Army New England Recruiting Battalion commander, describing the patients treated in camps his team built during Operation United Assistance in 2014.
The Ebola Treatment Units were constructed where they were needed most – outside affected villages, in the city of Monrovia, near an abandoned mine. The makeshift facilities had space for beds and a cleaning area for medical personnel to change into protective gear.
“No visitors were allowed. Family members would stand outside the fences trying to catch sight of loved ones.” Barbina recalled that Ebola differed from the novel coronavirus in that it was more difficult to contract, but far more deadly. “Most went in and did not come back out.”
After his engineering duties were completed and Barbina spent 21 days in quarantine, he was asked to write up an After Action Review for the . He formulated his “Top 10 Lessons Learned” and submitted them, believing his job was done.
“Never in a million years would I have thought I would go back to that slide,” Barbina said in a recent interview. He had been asked for input on how Army recruitment has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Instead, he relayed a story that was six years in the making.
Back in early March, Barbina was flying back from a training exercise with a colleague. “We talked about the coronavirus and how it could affect recruiting,” he said. “I decided on that flight we need to change the way we do business.”
Back at the battalion, Barbina dug deep into his personal archives to review the lessons learned PowerPoint slide he created after his Liberia experience. “1. Leadership Matters - When in charge, take charge. Leaders must be the calm within the storm,” the six-year-old document read. He channeled the quiet, determined strength of who led U.S. Army Africa Command through the Ebola Crisis and is now the 60th superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
“I wanted to model my leadership after (the general),” Barbina said. “He was calm, collected, strong, clear and concise in crisis.”
Curtailing a 30-year practice of face-to-face recruitment on March 16, Barbina instituted “Operation Patriot Shield,” transitioning all of his New England stations to online-only recruiting and virtual prospecting, and requiring safety restrictions during in-person interactions.
, the Army closed all 1,400 recruiting stations across the U.S. The other services followed that lead, and by March 25, all 20,100 members of the military recruiting force were teleworking. The move was an effective force protection measure – Barbina’s battalion only had one positive COVID-19 case – but it slowed recruiting from March through May.
Once again channeling the calm demeanor of his mentor and the uplifting hope-for-the-future outlook he nurtured during Operation United Assistance, Barbina said it will be a challenge to attract the 150,000 annual recruits needed to sustain the all-volunteer force over the months and years to come, but he’s confident recruiters can stay the course and get it done.
The career officer who saw the Army as his leadership opportunity after growing up in a small Ohio coal mining town, said virtual prospecting is here to stay. His battalion had already begun recruiting through social media, online job platforms, eSports tournaments, and other virtual communities prior to COVID-19.
He further noted that recruiters are discovering that participants in online eSports and social communities are excellent military prospects. “They are technically savvy. They are digital natives. They are interested in becoming drone pilots, cyber professionals and engineers. They are the Army of the future.”
The following article provides a more-in-depth look at the challenges and changes in the recruiting community – www.stripes.com/news/military-recruiting-takes-a-digital-turn-during-the-pandemic-1.629727.