Reserve Drills from a Distance: Distributed Operations through Individual Teamwork

Updated: May 31, 2020


Rob Boudreau

Major, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve

LtGen Bellon and SgtMaj Grade brief Marine Forces Reserve personnel on telework policy, released March 26, 2020.


COVID-19-induced lockdowns have pummeled real estate markets, revealing vulnerabilities as office, retail, and other workspaces have emptied.[1] At the same time, the seismic shift to telework as the new norm has demonstrated that employees can be as – if not more – productive at home, as they ever were in the office.[2] Permanent telework, however, is not possible for the armed forces, and especially the reserves. Military leaders must acquire positive control of their personnel, at times, to observe individual training; to inspect unit performance; to ensure that medical and other readiness metrics are up to snuff; and to maintain cohesiveness. In the reserve component, where face-to-face interactions occur all of two days a month, developing and strengthening team dynamics is especially critical.

Unfortunately, the invisible enemy has voted, and reserve units have had to adapt to the “virtual drill” model in recent months. All is not lost, however, as reserve training centers languish. Once again, our leaders at all levels can seize the initiative and develop valuable training, which will better equip the force not just for future restricted-travel conditions, but also for operating more effectively in austere environments. Several points are presented below for consideration in developing training and maintaining readiness.

Concept of Distance Operations

To borrow an overused expression: "We’re building the plane as we’re flying it." As much as it would be nice to imagine that our services have been prepared to engage any enemy, in any clime, in any place, at any time, an impartial observer could fairly assess the response to the COVID-19 lockdowns as . . . challenging. Still, the concept of telework drills has not been entirely new, and they’ve been authorized on a situational (individualized) basis in the past. Now is the time to develop the operating concept for the immediate future, and for FY21. Where to start? Employ triage: begin with the standards, and identify essential tasks; determine what requires personal observation and interaction, and what does not; and then front-load the latter over the upcoming months. Once in-person training is restored, continue to triage the most critical requirements, and get after them.

Individual Teamwork

Executing telework drills does not have to mean operating alone and unafraid. Last drill weekend, this author used no less than five different audio/video platforms for staff meetings, training, and discussion groups. In the Civil Affairs world, consider how much work gets done on digital media. Country studies, PMESII assessments and other training products can be developed just as easily at a distance [3]. The Army and Marine Corps have information management platforms that can be accessed off-site, and creative options can also be employed for individuals to contribute to group projects.

Civil Affairs, of course, markets itself as the coordinator-in-chief. Federal agencies, non-federal entities, international partners – all of their capabilities are fair game to the Civil Affairs go-getters looking to network across the human domain. Here’s a challenge: prove that we can accomplish the mission, amongst ourselves at the unit level, during this crisis time. The trust and experience developed during this period of individual teamwork will reap exponential benefits when teams are engaged downrange. Use this opportunity to replicate operating effectively in disparate locations – away from parent commands, supported units, international partners and other actors in the environment.

Education and Training

Speaking in broad terms, training requirements for the Marine Corps fall into two general categories: first, individual annual training and education requirements, which include the familiar annual fitness tests, shooting ranges, antiterrorism awareness classes, and the like; and second, satisfying unit readiness standards, as set forth in the training and readiness manual. Further complicating the current situation, units have to balance taking care of individuals (making sure everyone has the opportunity to earn a satisfactory year) with ensuring that unit readiness is not marginalized. On top of that, units, and individuals who care about their reserve careers, have to plan around three distinct time horizons: fiscal years; calendar years; and anniversary years. Getting ahead of potential date gaps or conflicts will help to eliminate last-minute attempts to juggle competing obligations.

With the suspension of travel, scheduled two-week annual training (AT) periods – which many units rely on to demonstrate proficiency in mission-essential tasks – have been upended. Units should now consider whether other options, such as all-hands “homesite” ATs, can be used to make up for lost time and opportunities. Your warriors can still knock out that tobacco cessation class online. For those falling behind in rank-appropriate PME, now’s the time to finish up the online segments of Corporal’s Course. Depending on MOS, even mission essential tasks can be trained at a distance. Coincidentally, other authors have also contributed thoughts on self-development and training in recent articles.[3]

But this is also primetime to develop new skills. This author is aware of at least one three-letter agency which has launched a beta online version of a course it has historically conducted only as a two-day, in-person module. Recognizing the risk of digital overload, the agency configured the online version to be run as four-hour blocks over four consecutive days. Other entities, such as technology providers, are offering additional training programs to meet the increased demand for virtual capabilities. Take advantage of these opportunities.

Other opportunities for professional development, such as group discussions of books, articles, and current events, are often a pipe dream on traditional drill weekends. Movements between events, administrative matters, and communication lags often create an enormous time suck, relegating the best-laid plans for analytical discussion to the back burner. Much of that is eliminated in the virtual environment. Leverage the efficiency of instant communications to add additional professional development opportunities into the drill schedule.


However inappropriate it may be to capitalize on a crisis, now is the time to focus on satisfying commander’s intent, rather than getting bogged down in administrative details. Trust your personnel to do the right thing, and to take advantage of their virtual drill periods. By way of example, the interjection of the telework log, no doubt, sends shudders down the spines of judge advocates, who will find remarkable similarities between accounting for drill time and recording billable hours. Telework logs should be utilized as a way of streamlining mustering drills and getting folks paid, especially as no one will be submitting requests for travel reimbursement, rather than morphing into another paperwork burden that must be forced through unwieldy systems. For medical and dental checks, consider whether orders can be issued for travelers to go to their local clinics, rather than waiting for the all-hands-all-weekend-long iteration. Physical fitness? Now is the time for everyone who complained about Sergeant Major picking flag football, again, for unit PT to kill it on their own. Urinalyses? Let’s trust that the values of honor, courage, and commitment have taken root in our warriors’ hearts.

In Sum: Get Creative

For the individual reservists who will struggle to make satisfactory years due to the loss of drills and annual training periods, there are still ways to get to 50 points. Even lieutenant colonels can earn 5 retirement points by taking Math for Marines.[5] If you’re an individual augment in a billet that will not permit drills in the foreseeable future, consider whether your unit will permit courtesy drills with another unit that can utilize your skills on a virtual-drill weekend. If your Marines and soldiers lack motivation to exercise on their own, now’s the time to remind them that there are literally apps for that. Zoom, Facetime, and other applications can also be used to execute other leadership disciplines, such as counseling, force preservation, and maintaining accountability.

For units, the fiscal year will be ending much too soon. AT plans should be reassessed to prioritize meeting readiness requirements under severe time constraints, without compromising training quality. Most importantly, the lessons learned from this new challenging environment should not just be filed away and forgotten. They should be built into next year’s unit training plan. The world has not come to an end: a new world, with new challenges to overcome, is just beginning.

About the Author

Maj Rob Boudreau is the Deputy Operations Officer for 4th Civil Affairs Group, and also serves on the editorial staff for Eunomia Journal. On the civilian side, he is a federal prosecutor serving in northern Texas.

The views expressed are the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.