‘Leadership matters’: Recruiters apply past lessons learned to current crisis
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 Major Anthony Barbina had no idea that he was preparing for a job he would fill years later. All he knew was that his skills as a burgeoning military leader were being tested.
“People were in rough shape, gaunt and haggard, throwing up all the time,” Lieutenant Colonel Barbina, now the Commander for the U.S. Army New England Recruiting Battalion, described the Ebola patients treated in camps that 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 their loved ones.” Barbina recalled that Ebola differed from the novel coronavirus in that it was more difficult to contract, but far more deadly. “Most loved ones went in and did not come back out.”
After completing his engineering duties and spending 21 days in quarantine, Barbina was asked to write up an After Action Review for the Center for Army Lessons Learned. Barbina wrote his “Top 10 Lessons Learned” and submitted them, believing that his job was done.
“Never in a million years would I have thought that I would go back to that slide,” Barbina told me in a recent interview. I had reached out to ask him how Army recruitment has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. He told me his 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, how it could affect recruiting and our recruiters,” 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 “Top 10 Lessons Learned” PowerPoint slide he created after his Liberia experience 2014. “1. Leadership Matters — When in charge, take charge. Leaders must be the calm within the storm,” the six-year-old slide read. He channeled the quiet, determined strength of Lieutenant General Darryl Williams 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.
“I wanted to model my leadership after Lieutenant General Williams,” Barbina said. “He was calm, collected, strong, clear and concise in crisis.”
Although face-to-face recruitment has been used for the past 30 years, on March 16th, Barbina instituted “Operation Patriot Shield,” transitioning all New England Battalion recruiting stations to online-only recruiting and virtual prospecting, and while placing safety restrictions on in-person interactions.
Two days later, the U.S. Army closed all 1,400 recruiting stations across the U.S. The other services followed the Army’s lead, and by March 25, all 20,100 members of the military recruiting force were teleworking. These unprecedented decisions have been effective force protection measures — Barbina’s battalion had only one positive COVID-19 case — but this did slow recruiting from March through May. Barbina’s battalion rolled unmet goals from this time into July, August and September.
How will the military attract the 150,000 annual recruits it needs to sustain the all-volunteer force over the months and years to come?
Barbina, who saw the Army as his leadership opportunity after growing up in a small Ohio coal mining town, says social media 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 the COVID-19 crisis. Barbina said 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.”