Soldiers deployed throughout the United States to support community responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have a 24-hour help desk, headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground, which they can contact should they have any issues with their communications equipment in the field.
The help desk, which was up and running April 7, is meant for soldiers in the Army and National Guard who are supporting a variety of community efforts around the U.S. to respond to outbreaks of COVID-19, as well as economic fallout resulting from many businesses being closed to promote social distancing and limit the spread of the potentially fatal disease.
Those efforts include distribution at local food banks, logistics and transportation of medical supplies so first responders and health care workers can focus on helping patients, setting up testing facilities and then handling traffic flow and security, assisting with medical services in nursing homes, providing aviation-based transportation, even saluting medical workers with events such as the recent flyover of area hospitals — including University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air — by National Guard A-10 jets.
Having communications gear in good working order is crucial to that military response, according to Army National Guard Col. Lesley Kipling, the Guard’s liaison officer to the Network Cross-Functional Team at APG, as well as the mission command lead for the Network Cross-Functional Team.
“It’s absolutely essential to have viable communications during this COVID response, where soldiers can report challenges or issues,” Kipling said.
Soldiers in the field can report to the help desk at APG any problems with their communications equipment, then get those problems resolved “so they can keep moving those [support] capabilities to the first responders and to the citizens who need them,” Kipling said.
The Network Cross-Functional Team is one of several APG organizations involved in the effort to create the help desk. The team’s partners in the effort, which started in late March, include Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications-Tactical, or PEO C3T, PEO Solider and the Army Communications-Electronics Command, or CECOM, according to Justin Eimers, a spokesperson, and Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joe Sylvester, chief warrant officer for PEO C3T.
The help desk is a supplement to the Army’s Mission Command Support Center, which manages the service’s Blue Force Tracker system used to track the locations of Army and allied units in the field, according to Eimers.
“The help desk was an extension of a capability that was already in place,” Sylvester said.
Kipling noted that leveraging and expanding an existing capability “made it immediately user friendly.”
Soldiers can reach the help desk by phone, email or filing a request online. Sylvester emphasized that it is a single point of contact for users to “seek help on any piece of equipment” that has been provided to them.
Troops can seek assistance for issues such as software or electronic hardware problems, configuring their equipment so it is inter-operable with the communication systems of other agencies, or even if they need help operating their systems, according to Kipling and Sylvester.
A “trouble ticket” is generated when a request for assistance is filed. Several people in the support system have access to it to provide management and oversight and ensure it is handled “in an expeditious manner,” according to Sylvester.
The ticket can be elevated to a higher level of management if additional help is needed, “to be able to provide the best support,” Sylvester said.
Kipling recalled that she was a coordinator at the National Guard headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, supporting troops responding after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, respectively, in 2017.
Soldiers reached out to contacts at headquarters, as well as various Army commands at APG, for assistance. Kipling noted that “everybody really wanted to help,” but it was a challenge for troops in the field to find the right person because the Army and National Guard did not have the same “one-stop shop” as they do now with the help desk.
“They make one phone call, they send one email, and it’s transparent to them who is actually working on the back end” of the request to the help desk, Kipling said.
"From a user perspective, it was a great resource,” she added.
Army officials have found that the help desk is “a great thing overall," to not only support COVID-19 relief efforts but any future relief missions. Additional tools are being added, such as a web page soldiers can visit to get information about setting up and operating some of the communications gear issued to them, according to Sylvester.
“We’ve seen the value in the help desk, and we want to make it an enduring solutions for soldiers to call, whether they’re deployed domestically or [overseas],” he said.