Until his retirement on April 4, Army Major General Ken Dowd was the director of logistics operations—in commercial terms, think COO—for the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). DLA provides worldwide logistics support to the military services, select civilian agencies, and allied foreign countries through the Foreign Military Sales program. The agency is active in Afghanistan, was in Iraq, and is a prime mover in disaster response and humanitarian relief operations like Hurricane Sandy, the earthquake in Haiti, or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
Maj. Gen. Dowd graduated from University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Ky., in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in history and received his commission through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). He holds a master's degree in logistics management from the Florida Institute of Technology and is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College. Maj. Gen. Dowd's awards include the Bronze Star Medal, the fourth-highest individual military award, conferred for acts of heroism, acts of merit, or meritorious service in a combat zone. He spoke recently to DC Velocity Editor at Large Steve Geary about the DLA's operations, the Hurricane Sandy relief effort, and why he could never be a tanker or helicopter pilot.
Q: DLA is a combat support agency, but that doesn't necessarily mean that everybody is in uniform or that it is somehow separated from the commercial world. Can you talk a little bit about that?
A: The DLA is about 25,000 strong—I think it has about 1,300 uniformed military. There are a lot of great men and women in DLA, including civilians and retired military. And the agency is learning from industry. I had presidents of companies up in my office talking to me about better ways of doing business, and it just makes sense to me that the agency try to change—to take the things it has learned from industry to make its strategic logistics structure more supportive. And you wouldn't believe the money DLA is saving on some of this stuff.
Q: Let's drill into what DLA does as an organization. As an outsider looking in, I found what DLA did after Hurricane Sandy to be just a spectacular response in terms of disaster relief. You were knee deep in it. How did it work?
A: With Sandy, we had gone through a couple of pre-planning events and had already looked at where our supplies were. We had started moving stuff around at some of our distribution depots to make sure we had rations, blankets, and bottled water at locations where we thought the storm might impact. Then, as the storm wound down, we really started—and this is something the agency continues to get better at—working with FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. Prior to that, I think we were two separate organizations, but Sandy really brought us together. So that linkage keeps getting stronger.
Q: So your success was driven by relationships, coordination, and communication?
A: The morning after the storm, I physically went forward into New Jersey and New York to see what the victims of the storm might need and also to link up with FEMA. We built our linkages so that we could do things like provide fuel to the state of New Jersey. I flew up there in one of their helicopters to watch a fuel truck start to pump fuel for citizens who needed gasoline to run their cars or heat their houses. So it was pretty impressive how the Defense Department linked up with FEMA the day after Sandy.
Q: Are you saying that in the wake of Sandy, the commercial supply chain for fuel basically collapsed and it was DLA that stepped up? That DLA used its network to deliver fuel to American citizens in a time of crisis?
A: After Sandy, the commercial supply chain for fuel in the New Jersey and New York City area was challenged for a lot of reasons—power outages, water damage, etc. Prior to Sandy's hitting, we positioned our disaster support contractor and mobilized hundreds of trucks to support requirements based on a priority system that FEMA gave us. The challenge then became velocity, because contractors were hauling fuel in from as far away as Michigan and Georgia. We found a Hess terminal in North Jersey that was up and running, and arranged for our relief trucks to receive priority. This enabled us to respond within hours to urgent requirements.
One of the biggest things that we saw right away was that the hospitals needed to keep their generators running so they could keep taking care of folks. That became a priority.
I also drove around one night and watched the tankers delivering at gas stations and topping off vehicles. You should have seen the people lined up getting fuel. It was a great feeling knowing we made it happen.
Q: Before you joined DLA, you were the commanding general for the First Theatre Sustainment Command. That means you were on the hook to coordinate all supplies flowing into Central Command, including Afghanistan. That has to have impacted your work as director of operations for the DLA.
A: When I got the call that I was going to DLA, I was pretty excited because I wanted to make sure that an organization like DLA was focused on what the warfighter needed. So we did some different things. We pushed colonels forward—out into the theater—where they are sitting with the warfighters. If the warfighters need rations, fuel, or a repair part, DLA is reacting pretty quickly. I just wanted to make the agency a little more focused.
Q: It's not much different in the commercial space, where we talk about getting close to our customer.
A: Before, a lot of the work was done back here in the continental United States, so the DLA was about nine to 10 hours behind issues. The time zone difference was slowing its ability to influence readiness in theater. With DLA boots on the ground, people are more focused on the requirements. If you are sitting at the table and that general says, "I need two tow bars," it's got to happen quickly.
Q: How did you end up in logistics?
A: As a student at the University of the Cumberlands, I was playing basketball and, you know, I wasn't very good. I joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps and took the platoon leader's course one summer with the marines. I fell in love with the military, and I was asked to be the brigade commander for the ROTC student detachment.
Then I had to figure out what I would do in the military. I rode around in the tank once and—I'm 6'5"—I was halfway out of the tank, so I knew I couldn't be a tanker. I looked at a helicopter and I really couldn't sit in the seat because my knees might go out the window, so I had to look for other opportunities. Logistics—moving all this stuff and getting it to the soldiers on time—always fascinated me. To support warfighters and make an impact caught my interest. I fell into logistics.
Q: Are there any other areas you'd like to explore?
A: I want to make sure that I say something to military families. I really appreciate the families of our young men and women in the military and on the civilian side who support the Defense Department and all those folks out there for all the sacrifices they make to let our young men and women serve our country. We often thank that soldier, sailor, airman, and marine, but I want to publicly thank the families for what they have done for our nation.
And please remember that we've got a lot of young men and women coming back from the combat zone, and I just ask our nation and your readers to grab one of these guys and hire them. They're dedicated, they're disciplined, and they have skills that are very valuable to companies.