JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
The U.S. Army Reserve 4th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, has been engaged in the military’s COVID-19 response right from the start. Two of the 4th ESC’s top officers are not only great leaders in uniform but out of uniform they serve as leaders in the healthcare field.
U.S. Northern Command, through U.S. Army North, is providing military support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help communities in need. For the most up to date information on COVID-19 and the military’s response visit https://www.defense.gov/Explore/Spotlight/Coronavirus/.
Col. Todd Erskine, the 4th ESC’s deputy commanding officer, and Col. Bruce Jennings, the unit’s chief of staff, are traditional U.S. Army Reserve Citizen-Soldiers, serving their communities in and out of uniform.
Erskine serves as a manager with Baylor Scott & White Health, the largest not-for-profit health system in Texas, while Jennings is the executive director of Greater San Antonio Emergency Physicians, a regional emergency physician group of more than 100 providers supporting San Antonio’s Methodist Health System. They both agree that being a part of the military’s response is an incredible opportunity and honor.
Erskine has a long history with 4th ESC units, where he served as a battalion and brigade commander. Most recently, he commanded the 300th Sustainment Brigade, from Grand Prairie, Texas, and deployed with them to U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility. After his brigade command, he took a position as the deputy commanding officer of the 451st ESC in Wichita, Kansas, but moved when he was asked to support the mobilization.
“I got a call asking if I would be available to mobilize to support COVID-19 operations,” Erskine said. “Knowing Brig. Gen. (Susan E.) Henderson and her team, and the fact that there was a need, I quickly said yes.”
Erskine was already familiar with the 4th ESC team, so he quickly took charge and integrated with the Soldiers at the unit’s headquarters in San Antonio.
“Our mission is to provide logistic support as a part of the COVID-19 response, and we’ve had folks spread out all over,” he said. “Our job is to ensure that we are providing the best support we can provide for our Nation at this time of need.”
With such a large operational area and so many units responding, it can be challenging to keep everyone focused on the same goal. Erskine says one of his main jobs is to take the priorities coming from Brig. Gen. Susan E. Henderson, the 4th ESC's commanding general, and synchronize them with the goals and operations of the other organizations involved.
“I help focus our team and ensure that Brig. Gen. Henderson’s priorities are aligned with the commander of Army North’s priorities,” Erskine said. “This only works if we are all on the same page, pushing in the same direction, and we are making that happen.”
And how does he do it? He says it’s all about communicating those priorities across the formation, and to stay on track, he asks himself a simple question a previous boss used to pose to him all the time.
“He used to say, ‘Erskine, think about who else needs to know?’ and everybody, every person on the team has a piece of that,” Erskine said. “So, in essence, it’s communicating and making sure that we’re synchronized. By doing this, we are moving the ball down the field as a team.”
Unlike Erskine, who joined the unit for the response, Jennings holds a more permanent position at the 4th ESC serving as the chief of staff since the spring of 2018. His regular duties are similar to his duties during the COVID-19 response, except he is on orders for this mission along with the rest of the unit, putting his uniform on every day.
“My role is to synchronize all the efforts of the disparate staff functions. That’s everything from personnel to logistical planning to operations,” Jennings said, “and provide courses of action to our commander, Brig. Gen. Henderson, for her decision making.”
The impact of COVID-19 in the U.S. is far beyond anything anyone could have imagined, and to meet the threat, the military’s COVID-19 response is unprecedented. Jennings says he never thought this kind of operation would be a part of his Army experience.
“When I joined the Army, I never envisioned myself being mobilized within the continental United States to fight a disease or a virus,” Jennings said, “but this is real, this is homeland defense.”
Erskine and Jennings have both participated in Defense Support to Civil Authorities missions in the past, just nothing on this scale. During Hurricane Harvey, in 2017, Erskine sent members of his command to assist in areas throughout Texas.
“At the 300th SB, we brought Soldiers in on immediate response authority during Harvey,” Erskine said. “We supported operations, in Houston, in the Harris County area, and even supported requests from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.”
Similarly, Jennings was part of the 4th ESC’s response to Hurricane Dorian in 2019. When Dorian threatened the East Coast, it was the first time the unit was activated to respond to a national crisis within the continental United States. He said it helped the unit create practices and procedures that are making their current operations against COVID-19 successful.
“After our unit’s response to Dorian last year, I think we have a better understanding of the requirements in preparation for this response,” Jennings said. “We learned from our challenges, we had a plan, we implemented it here, and because of that we are coming together better as a headquarters and staff, and really making an impact.”
Part of that planning was looking ahead to prepare for any number of unknown scenarios, it could be a natural disaster, a man-made crisis, or an unexpected nationwide pandemic response. To meet the need, Erskine said the unit created scalable packages of Soldiers with different skill sets so they can respond rapidly with the right people in the right roles.
“We've been fairly smart in our planning, with how we've structured our gold, silver and bronze packages,” Erskine said. “We built them so we can nimbly and quickly respond to any scenario, and that's a product of looking ahead and trying to be smart about how we employ our forces.”
Both leaders are proud of how well the unit responded and continues to respond in this time of need. The Soldiers are meeting the needs of the front line medical personnel, and are doing so quickly and efficiently.
“We’re enabling those who are saving people’s lives, and I think everybody here at the 4th ESC can take some credit for that,” Jennings said. “We all played a role in getting the right instrument, in this case, physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, and the life-saving equipment they use, to the right place at the right time.”
The 4th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) is made up of Soldiers, civilians and their families in units headquartered throughout Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. As part of America's Army Reserve, these units are trained, combat-ready and equipped to provide military and logistical support in any corner of the globe.