By Karla Gabel, Office of Supply Corps Personnel Naval Supply Systems Command
The United Nations (UN) Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was established to support political processes in the country and carry out a number of security-related tasks, helping to stabilize Mali. In 2017, two Supply Corps officers were selected for individual augmentation (IA) deployments in support of MINUSMA. Cmdr. Frank Kim served in Timbuktu and Lt. Cmdr. Tamara Sonon served in Gao. In this interview, Ms. Karla Gabel, with the Office of Supply Corps Personnel (OP), spoke with Lt. Cmdr. Sonon about her experience.
Could you please tell me about yourself? Lt. Cmdr. Sonon:
I joined the Navy through the Baccalaureate Degree Completion Program and was commissioned via Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida. My afloat tours include my division officer tour on the USS Frank Cable (AS 40) and my SUPPO tour on the USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43). My other assignments include a budget financial manager internship at Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), a supply department head tour at Maritime Civil Affairs and Security Training Command (MCAST), and retail financial analyst and off ship bill pay action officer at NAVSUP Headquarters. I am currently the Common Electronics Integrated Weapon Systems Team director at NAVSUP Weapon Systems Support (NAVSUP WSS) in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. My husband is also an active duty Supply Corps officer. How did you find out about this assignment? Lt. Cmdr. Sonon:
Initially I was assigned as Cmdr. Kim’s alternate. I was new to NAVSUP WSS and when the IA assignment came up, my name was put in the hat, and I was selected as an alternate. I went through all the training and preparation up to pre-deployment training, so that if Cmdr. Kim was disqualified at any point, I would go in his place. However, instead of returning to NAVSUP WSS after the initial training, a different primary candidate was disqualified. As a result, I continued on to pre-deployment training and to the IA deployment to Mali. Could you tell me about your pre-deployment training? Lt. Cmdr. Sonon:
The initial training involved Navy Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center (ECRC) for weapons qualification, Survival Evasion Resistance Escape and Evasion and Conduct After Capture (SERE -ECAC) Level B School in San Antonio, Texas. The pre-deployment training included an introduction to the UN, defensive driving, off-road driving, and weapons training in Winchester, Virginia. How did your career path prepare you for this job? Lt. Cmdr. Sonon:
Leadership and staff management from my SUPPO tour, MBA classes on leadership and organizational behavior, and Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) helped prepare me for this deployment.
What did the job entail? Lt. Cmdr. Sonon:
I was a logistics advisor to the G4 Logistics Cell at Sector East Headquarters in Gao. The G4 chief was a French Army lieutenant colonel. The American team in Gao was of a team of nine (three Navy, two Marines, two Army, and two Air Force). We reported directly to a Navy captain stationed at the Bamako, Mali Force Headquarters, who then reported to United States Military Observer Group in Washington, DC. I recommended improvements to achieve logistics efficiency throughout our sector. My job was mainly about advising, identifying the broken areas, and trying to implement solutions. How did the experience you gained on this job help your career? What did it add to your “toolbox?” Lt. Cmdr. Sonon:
For my toolbox, I received the 918 Additional Qualification Designation (AQD) and the J4L AQD for doing Joint logistics. The experience I gained from working with different countries and how different logisticians operate was invaluable. The UN experience was also interesting and unique. The effectiveness of how the UN operates and overcomes language and cultural barriers was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. What was the biggest “lesson learned” from this job? Lt. Cmdr. Sonon:
For me and where I am in my faith, understanding that nothing is ever really in my control, was my biggest lesson learned. When I got there, I was faced with a lot of challenges. I kept asking myself, “how do I overcome these challenges and actually make a difference?” I managed to overcome those challenges by taking advantage of circumstances and opportunities as they surfaced. For example, we encountered a fuel crisis in Gao a month after I arrived. I used the difficulties from that incident to illustrate the importance for synchronization and open communication among all stakeholders. Do you have any advice to help prepare future Supply Corps officers who take this assignment? Lt. Cmdr. Sonon:
Number one: keep an open mind, and never be discouraged, no matter what. When I first arrived in Gao, I washed my clothes in a bucket for the first five months, but we eventually got washing machines. There was no dining facility (DFAC), so I brought a hot plate and a rice cooker to Gao and I cooked my meals–that’s how I survived. Some people bought food at the cafe, but you can’t do that every day. Before I left, they were in the process of building a DFAC. There was no gym, so I used workout DVDs and resistance bands and worked out in my room. There is now a gym in Gao. Before leaving, we created a PowerPoint presentation for the incoming team, which informed them of what to do, what they need, and what to expect. My advice is to listen to the gouge from the people that are there in country. Things are constantly changing in Gao and they are making quality-of-life improvements daily. Also, be sure to get a very good dental check-up and cleaning before you go!