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Interview: Vice Adm. William Hilarides

Commander, Naval Sea Systems Command

Oct. 13, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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The murder of 12 Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) employees at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16 began an unprecedented series of events that remain a long way from being sorted out. NAVSEA Commander Vice Adm. William Hilarides, the 2,000-plus employees of Building 197 ó the site of the attack ó and nearly 60,000 other NAVSEA workers are dealing with trauma and loss, the physical disruption of the commandís headquarters, budget uncertainty and the debilitating effects of the government shutdown. It would be a lot for anyone to handle, but for Hilarides, who took over the command in early June, itís an especially daunting challenge. He sat down with Defense News Oct. 10 for his first media interview since the events of Sept. 16.

Q. You have all these cascading events, but you canít stop, the business of NAVSEA goes on.

A. Right, it has to.

Q. So whatís guiding you right now? How are you handling this?

A. Well, personal experience matters. [On] 9/11, of course, I was on the Navy staff [in the Pentagon]. My office was disrupted, ultimately torn down and rebuilt. I worked out of the Navy Annex near the Pentagon for the following year. So I had some experience in this context.

I have three broad things. One, taking care of the families of the fallen and the wounded as a highest priority that first week. Nothing else mattered than making sure those families got the care and respect and dignity and grieving that they needed. Second was the 4,000 people in the Navy Yard and then, the larger NAVSEA family needed to go heal and have the kind of services that, you know, people who go through mortar attacks need. They needed to go tell their stories. They needed to grieve. They needed counseling. Some of them needed very serious counseling. So we spun up all the resources of the government, sprint teams from all over the East Coast. We facilitated many, many grieving sessions, and story-telling sessions, and the kinds of things that help people get through it. So that was kind of number two, get people the help they needed so that they didnít go crazy during that time.

And then the third priority was the business of the Navy. A lot of people werenít directly impacted, and they needed to be back at work. So, reopening the Navy Yard, half my organization doesnít live in Building 197. They live in the other buildings in the Navy Yard. They actually came back to work on Wednesday [Sept. 18] and Thursday and began. And then where do we put 2,300-2,400 people? We put them wherever it made sense to put them. I actually took over Military Sealift Commandís emergency control center. My contracts folks went with the contracts folks from [other organizations] and the Pentagon and then embedded with the people in other buildings. Budget financial folks went over to the Pentagon and embedded in there. The program executive officers went to their contractor facilities along M Street. And broadly, by Wednesday or Thursday, a large preponderance, 3,500 people, were working. And 500 people were grieving and counseled and going to funerals. And then, over time, weíve migrated more and more people into the work category.

And now, weíre in the business of getting everybody back to work, because as you said, the Navy needs us. And, in fact, probably the number one thing that helps people get through this is that the Navy needs us. They get their grief counseling, but then they come back and they want to get their ship under contract, get that repair going, make a decision. And theyíve made me very proud of their ability to fight through and support the Navy in spite of all the things in front of them.

So those three things have kept me going. I have availed myself of employing that counseling, as well. Itís been a tough time. Grieving with 12 families is not something that anything but your family and your faith prepares you for, and Iíve done the best I could.

Q. The procedures in granting security clearances are a major factor in the investigations and reviews being conducted. One of the flags for security review is if an applicant ever sought or received psychological counseling for any reason at all. Isnít that inhibiting the counseling efforts?

A. So a kind of important distinction, and one Iíve actually made to the workforce. The preponderance of us have gone to group sessions where we sit around with 10 or 15 folks and tell what happened to us and listen to other people share a few stories. And help kind of vent those feelings, get them out on the table with the people you trust. There is no record of that. Thatís free and you donít even need a counselor for it. In fact, itís most effective when you kick the counselors out and just deal with your workforce. And weíve been doing that in giant gobs, lots and lots. And theyíre still going on.

For the people who stepped over a dead body, got a gun pointed at them but the gun misfired, they need to go take care of their psyche ó and who cares about their security clearance? Letís sort that out later. Thatís the way youíve got to treat it. And for most people, theyíll go get their counseling, theyíll get treated and theyíll likely come back on the government rolls, and Iím not worried about them.

Q. Isnít that easier to say than actually do? I would imagine the vast majority of your employees have security clearances.

A. I think thatís true. But most of them are not going to need medicine or the kind of personal psychological counseling that leads to the kinds of treatments that are disqualifying for security clearances. But they could, and if they need it, they need to go get it and take care of themselves. Thatís more important than the other parts. Iíll go fight for them, but I can only do what I can do within that context. But in terms of being healthy, thereís nothing more important than that. And thatís the way I think of it and thatís the way Iím going to talk about it.

Q. There are numerous reviews going on, by the Navy, the Pentagon, others. Is NAVSEA doing any particular investigation that you have instigated?

A. I have not. There have been so many that I currently donít have an internal review. I did pull the string on what systems we use for our internal security badging, who gets to wand in and all that sort of stuff. But Iíve now fed that up into the larger investigations. So no, I have no specific NAVSEA investigations going on right this second.

Q. Youíre in the process of moving your command into the recently vacated former Coast Guard headquarters building at nearby Buzzard Point. But moving doesnít just mean finding space and a desk. Computer networks and secure access is a major aspect. How are you managing this?

A. A large preponderance of the work of NAVSEA is done on the unclassified but secure Navy-Marine Corps Intranet [NMCI] network that can be accessed even from a home computer. Much of my workforce has been using the external accesses. Now, weíve clogged them pretty badly, because weíre using them at a much higher rate than anybody else had. And thatís why my priority has been on getting this building at Buzzard Point wired for NMCI. Itís got a modern [local area network], although itís not connected to NMCI ó thatís a matter of servers and pipes and those sorts of things. It appears that in relatively short order, weíre going to be able to get a large number of people in there.

Q. We just passed the end of the fiscal year, a time when traditionally the greatest number of contract awards are made.

A. The financial and contract shops really have a lot of work to do from the 16th until the end of the fiscal year. We did $1.6 billion of contract actions. I am so proud of those people and what they got accomplished in the last two weeks of this fiscal year, given all those challenges. Thatís why Iím so adamant about our civilian workforce and their value to the nation.

People do miraculous things when presented with impossible challenges. We used the warfare centers, the shipyards and regional maintenance centers, which are all parts of NAVSEA. We used the full capabilities of the organization and got it all done. Itís just unbelievable.

Q. Youíve begun the process of assessing the damage to Building 197, which is considerable. Youíve also said you donít want the building put back the way it was, but youíd like to see some changes.

A. A large portion of the workforce has worked there for a very long time, and most of them will work there for the next 20 or 30 years. Making them go back in a building completely unchanged ó Iíve heard it referred to not infrequently as the shooting gallery. So those probably need to change. Pretty fundamental.

Thatís why the design contract is going to go give us some options. Maybe there is frosted glass so itís more like sunlight. But I think the other one is the entrance. That area got shot up pretty good and a lot of people came out there, so I want it closed. My intent is to move the entrance around to the front of the building, the river side, maybe a circular drive and a memorial to the 12 in the center so you can see it from the river walk and from the building. And change the feel of the building so that when people come, they go, well, itís different.

Enhance security, if thatís whatís warranted by the reviews, so that people feel like itís different, more secure. And it doesnít immediately evoke this, thatís where Mike Arnold was killed. Thatís where Vishnu Pandit was killed. Thatís where Art Daniels went down.

Ultimately, the secretary of the Navy will decide whether we do the whole thing, part of it, or just repair it as it is and then let it sort out, which I donít think weíll do that, but could.

Q. It sounds as though you could be at Buzzardís Point a good year or so.

A. From a planning horizon standpoint, thatís probably reasonable.

Q. Your other major calamity is the government shutdown. The Building 197 folks were declared exempt from the furloughs, your uniformed personnel were still working, and as of Oct. 7 most of your people are back. How is this affecting the business of NAVSEA?

A. Weíre only one week into a new fiscal year. Not much normally happens in that first week of a new fiscal year. We kind of take a breather from closing out the previous financial books. And weíre starting to ramp up to get repair contracts in place. We probably lost a week or more in the shipyards. Our headquarters job then has to go characterize that, reschedule and start figuring out what the long-term impactís going to be. Each week that goes by, more damage is done, of course. Weíre making sure the important stuffís getting done.

We have done everything to avoid [an impact on readiness]. I have no instance that I know of where we didnít get the person to where they needed to be to keep a ship at sea. But if there is a repair contract that should be in place thatís not, that is impacting readiness. So itís not instantaneously that the fleet becomes less ready.

We often donít start many shipyard availabilities in the first quarter because occasionally the Congress does this to us and weíve learned our lesson. So we try to put them on contract at the end of the previous fiscal year. The second quarter is when youíll really start to see the impacts.

Q. Back to the events of Sept. 16. Would you change anything just yet?

A. We all built COOP plans, continuity of operations plans. Broadly, they had us disburse out of Washington, go to Carderock, go to Mechanicsburg, go to Norfolk. We decided almost instantaneously that we were going to COOP here, that taking people away from their families, the support structure, all that stuff, would have been a disaster. So we probably didnít think through, in our COOP planning, this kind of an event, where one building or one group of buildings becomes untenable but the rest of the Washington stays in operation.

But as a result, what we made up turned out pretty good. Itíll be a blueprint of a pretty good COOP plan for something like this if it ever happens again. In an event like this, if weíd given a little more thought, weíd have been up and operating faster with more clarity. But itís hard to beat what we ended up doing. People are amazing at their ingenuity when theyíre focused on a mission, so itís good.

Iíll finish with this. Of the 4,000 people, thereís 3,500 that needed to come back to work as soon as possible and get back to work, because sitting at home watching CNN is not very good for your soul when something like this happens ó work and being with your workmates and talking about what happened is. Five hundred people needed that more serious counseling and needed to go see somebody. Weíve migrated more and more people here and now weíve got to go get íem a place to work, where they can feel safe and secure and get the work of the Navy done. Thatís what I work on every day.

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