By Chief Mass Communication Specialist Scott Wichmann, Commander, Navy Reserve Forces Command Public Affairs
When it comes to responding to emergencies, the Navy has one community focused on providing support to civil authorities: Navy Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers, also known as NEPLOs.
Most disaster response missions supported by NEPLOs take place overseas, but the COVID-19 pandemic showcased this unique community’s ability to help American citizens here at home.
“When a community is in a state of emergency and the Navy is called upon to help, it is a NEPLO that the Navy sends forward,” said Navy Reserve Capt. John Saccomando, NEPLO program commanding officer. “Our NEPLOs are trained to go into emergency scenarios and help the civil authorities appropriately leverage the military resources available to them.”
The NEPLO program has around 130 officers trained in defense support of civil authorities. There is no active-duty equivalent, and NEPLOs only exist in the Navy Reserve.
The drumbeat for NEPLOs has always differed from that of traditional Reservists. NEPLOs don’t plan their drills or annual training like most of the Navy Reserve. Instead, they are on standby — waiting for an emergency before surging forward to meet it head-on.
NEPLOs Answer the Call
When the global COVID-19 pandemic struck, most Sailors found their Navy Reserve battle rhythm disrupted. By contrast, NEPLOs found their skill sets in high demand.
During the early phases of the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, more than 80 NEPLOs went on orders to support everything from Federal Emergency Management Agency regional headquarters to working with emergency officials at the state level. NEPLOs also served as the major Department of Defense command and control nodes at Northern Command, Army North Command, Navy North Command and the Navy Installations Command.
Key to the NEPLO mission is timely response during an emergency, so members are often assigned to the nearest FEMA region in the continental United States. This proximity to home allows NEPLOs to respond quickly and serve the same communities in which they live and work.
Among the Sailors who mobilized in 2020 was Navy Reserve Capt. Michael Flatley, a NEPLO since 2017. Flatley, a resident of East Hampton, Connecticut, supported civil authorities across five FEMA regions while interfacing daily with the Vermont Emergency Management Services just 10 days after the presidential declaration of a state of emergency.
“Like everybody there, I was trying to better understand what the threat was, how to mitigate it and how to get on top of the national security risk we were facing,” said Flatley.
While Flatley coordinated FEMA support, many NEPLOs served aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) in New York City, providing support to local authorities during COVID-19.
“They left their families during this uncertain time in our nation’s history knowing that they can make a difference,” said Navy Reserve Vice Adm. John Mustin, Chief of Navy Reserve / Commander, Navy Reserve Forces, during a speech addressing the Comfort crew. “That is what the US Navy does, and this is an example of Americans helping their fellow men.”
Over a third of NEPLO COVID response missions in 2020 supported communities and commands in Navy Region Mid-Atlantic. NEPLOs averaged about a month on orders in the Mid-Atlantic and about 40 days in Navy Region Southeast.
In the spring of 2020, with New England and the New York tri-state area the hardest hit with COVID-19, Flatley’s mobilization lasted for about 90 days, a three-month mission says he couldn’t accomplish alone.
“Two things a Navy reservist needs to be successful on a mobilization are a supportive employer and a supportive family,” said Flatley. “Thankfully, I’m fortunate enough to have been blessed with both.”
Going on the Offensive
On December 14, 2020, Sandra Lindsay, a New York City critical care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, became the first person in the United States to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. It was a small but resoundingly significant first salvo in the battle to bring the pandemic under control. Suddenly, the tide began to turn, and the NEPLOs provided reinforcements.
Comments from Mustin’s 2020 pierside press conference seemed to telegraph the enormous vaccination support effort NEPLOs would provide in the early months of 2021, specifically to one of the most iconic — and populous — cities in America.
Giving a message for all New Yorkers, Mustin said, “Now your Navy has returned and we are with you, committed in this fight. Every Sailor, every Marine and every civilian on this mission stands proudly. Stands ready to serve the people of New York City. We have not yet begun to fight, and we will not yet give up this ship.”
When the COVID-19 winter mission began, 42 NEPLOs logged more than a month on orders, many this time finding themselves working at federal vaccination sites under the U.S. Northern Command through U.S. Army North. NEPLOs had indeed begun to fight, and the results would be stark and significant.
Flatley, a New York native, returned for another mobilization in February 2021, this time to support the federally-run Community Vaccination Center Site at York College in Queens, New York, through May.
“My second mobilization was more like going on the offensive against the enemy,” said Flatley. “It was wonderful to be able to do something proactive instead of reactive — namely, taking the fight to the enemy in the form of the vaccine.”
Flatley said being in such familiar surroundings was both a comforting and slightly funny feeling.
“I actually grew up on Long Island, near the vaccination site, about 5 miles away,” said Flatley. “I never thought one day I’d be deploying to Jamaica, Queens. Honestly, it feels very gratifying. We had about 3,000 opportunities a day to make a good impression about the military to the people in this community.”
‘A Family Affair’
During his second tour at York Site CVC, Flatley received some help from a familiar face wearing a familiar nametape: Intelligence Specialist 3rd Class Sean Flatley, who enlisted in the Navy Reserve just last year.
“My son used his drill weekend to come down here and support the mission,” said Flatley, with pride. “His unit had been drilling remotely via CVR Teams, and he just wanted to come down and get some real-world experience and help out where he could.”
However, the support of the Flatley family to the NEPLO mission didn’t end there. Flatley’s daughter, a nursing student at Sacred Heart, travelled to Queens with a friend two separate times and volunteered to assist, while Flatley’s youngest daughter baked cookies for the entire York Site CVC team.
“I guess you could say it was kind of a family affair,” said Flatley, a veteran of seven total mobilizations and deployments over the last decade. “Sean and I may be the ones wearing the uniform, but we all serve together as a family.”
A Lasting Impact
Throughout the total mission, the York Site CVC administered vaccinations to more than 223,000 people within the community — numbers Flatley put into immediate and sobering perspective.
“Statistically speaking, some of those people would have likely died without the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Flatley. “We’ll never know exactly who we saved, but our efforts meant children wouldn’t have to bury their parents, people reaching their adult years would get the chance to marry and have kids of their own, and grandparents would have more time to spend with their families. That’s extraordinarily gratifying.”
Flatley said the opportunity to turn the tide against the COVID-19 pandemic as a NEPLO officer is a mission he'll remember for years to come.
“In life, we don’t choose our callings, we choose how to answer them,” said Flatley. “I think that’s one of the beautiful things about the Navy Reserve. It’s an adventure of a different sort.”