During his deployment to Iraq, which ended in December 2006, Spc. Gary Bixler received more than just system support from Josh Adams, a civilian Digital Systems Engineer.
With Adams at his side, Bixler was able to delve deeper into the specifics of the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System he was assigned to operate during the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division\'s counterinsurgency efforts.
"(Adams) worked side-by-side with us," Bixler said. "We saw him every day. So, if there was ever a problem, he was right there to help and give suggestions. He also trained us on the finer parts of AFATDS; some of the strategic (aspects) and what not."
During a unit's training exercise, the DSEs help resolve issues and set priorities, repair boxes, provide some over-the-shoulder training and explain systems. Many deploy to support the same unit in Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
"I am an embedded DSE and wherever the unit goes, I go," said Adams, 1st Brigade DSE, with the Central Technical Support Facility, Fort Hood, Texas.
Bixler and Adams, who have known each other for nearly two years recently prepared at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., to deploy together again to Iraq at the end of the year.
"The FSR (Field Service Representative) teams that we have here (at the NTC) are composed of many different contractors that support the systems that they're using," Adams said. "Those same contractors will be over in Iraq with the unit."
Each brigade includes an embedded DSE in theater. Any issues that the brigade-level DSE cannot resolve are given to the division-level DSE.
If the division-level DSE still cannot resolve the issue, he or she will work the issue over the phone with an FSR or will request that the FSR is sent to the Brigade DSE's location to help repair the product.
Commanders use AFATDS to plan and execute fires during each phase of action, whether it is a deliberate attack or defensive operation. Commanders can use the system to give orders, reposition radars and communicate to the lowest levels of units.
Adams is the point person for issues related to the PEO C3T's Army Battle Command Systems 6.4, a suite of digital systems which warfighters use to locate friendly units through Global Positioning System technology, organize logistics, analyze intelligence data and terrain, plan and execute fires, manage the airspace, along with other missions. Adams is tasked with being the first to resolve issues Soldiers have with a system.
"I am like the first aid to the issue," Adams said. "More than likely I am going to resolve the issue."
When he can't resolve an issue, Adams will contact a higher tier representative who will dispatch a FSR.
Bixler said that, in the past, he has received expedient system support from the civilian staff.
"Usually they can fix any problem within an hour," he said. "It's just very nice and it helps us out a lot."
Spending time with a unit is beneficial for a DSE, as it takes time to learn how a Soldier will respond to a system, said Mr. Jeffrey Curley, who provides Adams additional DSE from the CTSF in Fort Hood, Texas.
"By spending time with a unit, you get to know the operators better," Curley said. "Once you know the operators' level of competency, then you're better off at understanding where it is that they're having issues."
A DSE who does not know a system operator or his or her skill, will be challenged in determining if a system issue is the result of a malfunction or human error, he said.
"So, it's important to know the people that are in the Brigade, particularly the embedded solution, because it builds up that rapport," Curley said. "If you're constantly with the same people, they kind of treat you like family."
In Curley's past experiences with brigades, entering the training process early allowed him to develop positive working relationships and get to know the Soldiers.
"If you come in when they are already doing their fight, at that point, they don't have the time to stop and say, 'Who are you? Where are you from?" Curley said. "So, working with the Brigade from the beginning, before they start their CTC (Combat Training Center) rotation and deploy to Iraq, is very beneficial."
The amount of mesh time for civilian staff and the units they support depends on the personalities involved, he said. Some civilians and Soldiers can coordinate their efforts rather quickly.
"Especially, if they're not familiar with certain systems and you provide knowledge base to them," he said. "They're going to lean on you and say, 'Hey, you know this guy knows his stuff, let me get with him; and that relationship is going to build fast. If they don't and they're kind of reluctant because you're a civilian and you're trying to explain to them how to use their equipment, it takes you a little bit longer."
In the present NTC rotation, Curley had only known the Brigade's S6 for about a week before they began to form a bond.
In the Army, an S6 is the unit's communications officer who advises the unit's commanding officer on each facet of communications.
Curley himself deployed to Iraq as a civilian in 2005 and to Afghanistan last year.
The NTC's terrain resembles Afghanistan more than Iraq, due to its elevation, Curley said. The heat and sand of the NTC, however, resemble Iraq more closely, he said.
Though the digital systems are tested prior to reaching the NTC, testing equipment in the NTC's environment is very important, he said.
"You want to make sure that if you're bringing a piece of equipment to the fight, it's going to be able to withstand the elements," he said. "If it doesn't withstand the elements, there's no sense of really bringing it, because if it is going to fail on you and you're not going to be able to do your mission."
Hands-on training is also essential.
"Personally, I think the hands-on training is a key element," Curley said. "It's one thing to sit in a classroom environment and learn a system. It's another thing to actually be out in an exercise sitting behind that system and getting that hands on training, so you can see exactly what the system is suppose to do for you."
Due to the size of the CTSF's workforce, more than 90 percent of the staff is very close to someone who either has, will or is deployed in theater, according to its leadership. Many of the personnel's skills are based on experience, not textbooks.
The CTSF consists of a headquarters, along with portions set up for test activities, operations and field and network support.
Software or capabilities are delivered to the CTSF by an organization on a CD, DVD or hard drive. A thorough and rather intricate shake-out follows.
The CTSF first examines the media and determines if it matches an inventory list provided by the organization that developed it. The documentation is reviewed to see if it meets the CTSF's expectations for quality, quantity and detail. The product's packaging is examined to determine if it holds the credibility of a professionally developed and designed product.
An introduction-level test will follow to determine if the software can load on systems and passes initial information assurance requirements.
The organization is given the opportunity to put the software through a low-level test, which does not count towards evaluation. The test determines if the software will interoperate with other systems. The CTSF then examines the software's components to determine if it is up-to-date with present technologies. The CTSF staff tests to determine if the most relevant code is on the media delivered to the facility.
The software or capabilities are tested shortly afterwards. Technicians from the CTSF and the organization being tested work together to determine if the media functions as was expected by both parties. They also determine if there is an issue that was not discovered by both prior to that point.
The CTSF works with other facilities such as Fort Sill, Okla., Redstone Arsenal, Ala., and the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Integration Digital Integration Lab in Orlando, Fla., to perform larger exercises to determine if the media works in those environments.
The CTSF is assigned to the Army's CECOM Life Cycle Management Command.
Note: This article originally appeared in Fort Monmouth's "Monmouth Message" November 7.