“DLA’s work has always been tied to the greater American story. There’s very little the nation has done where we haven’t had some supporting role,” said Colin Williams, DLA historian.
Fallout shelter supplies were the first items DLA bought for use by the American public. Fear of a nuclear attack was so real the agency assembled medical kits and stockpiled supplies in caves in the Allegheny Mountains.
“We kept them for so long we had to set up an inspection schedule to ensure shelf-stable foods really were shelf stable,” Williams said.
The agency went on to source the antenna that broadcast man’s first walk on the moon. And when gas shortages and steep prices during the 1970s energy crisis ignited strikes and families ran short of heating oil, DLA brought stability by using the Defense Production Act to order large quantities at better prices than those available to the general population.
DLA’s work has always been tied to the greater American story. There’s very little the nation has done where we haven’t had some supporting role.”
Colin Williams, DLA historian
U.S. companies that wanted to send free goods to troops in the Gulf War also got a hand from DLA; the agency partnered with companies, including Nabisco, Mars Inc. and USA Today to palletize and ship Oreo cookies, M&Ms, books, newspapers and more.
Though Hurricane Katrina wasn’t the first storm to invoke DLA support, its Category 5 winds and resulting floods stranded over a million people who needed basic supplies. DLA sent items — including food, bottled water and sleeping bags — to Federal Emergency Management Agency staging areas for residents who were suddenly rendered homeless.
DLA support was so vital to the months-long recovery following Katrina that the agency created contingency contracts to respond to FEMA requirements for humanitarian aid in future disasters.
“Katrina really put DLA on the map when it comes to supporting the nation in a crisis,” said Brad Bunn, DLA’s vice director. “By bringing commercial supply chains together with our organic distribution capabilities, it became obvious we were able to deliver supplies wherever they’re needed and, frankly, at a reasonable cost because of our ability to leverage large-scale buys.”
Hurricane Maria in 2017 showcased the agency’s ability to support broader needs. DLA Troop Support sent items that included handheld radios and medicine to Puerto Rico, and DLA Disposition Services helped victims remove scrap metal and other debris scattered across the island. The agency even helped rebuild the local power grid with generators and telephone poles.
America’s schools have been helped by DLA, too. Through Computers for Learning, pre-kindergarten and grade-school classrooms receive laptops, monitors and keyboards that the Defense Department considers surplus.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are also sent to school kitchens across the country through DOD’s Fresh Program, a partnership between DLA and the Department of Agriculture that also supports U.S. farmers. When COVID-19 closed schools, DLA helped provide produce to students’ families. And a similar program allows the agency to put fruit, vegetables and eggs on the dining tables of low-income Native Americans.
Homeless veterans get a lift from the agency, as well. DLA Disposition Services holds hundreds of annual events around the nation to distribute boots, parkas, sleeping bags, towels, cold-weather gear and other items.
Even U.S. small businesses have flourished with DLA support. In fiscal 2021, over 7,000 small businesses — including those owned by minorities and service-disabled veterans — were awarded contracts worth $13 billion, putting money back into local economies.
We will be captured in every after-action report as a success for being able to step in and provide the capabilities that the other government agencies didn’t have internally. DLA was able to step into that gap and support the entire United States, and it’s not often that you get to say that.”
Brig. Gen. David Sanford, DLA Aviation Commander
DLA has also been a pillar in the U.S. government’s response to COVID-19. DLA Troop Support provided gowns, gloves, test kits and more for nursing homes; masks for local community centers; ventilators and medical supplies for hospitals; and protective equipment to replenish the Strategic National Stockpile.
DLA Energy Deputy Director Dave Kless, who served as DLA Operations’ executive director from the beginning of the response until June, said DLA’s reputation for helping the nation during natural disasters made it an obvious choice for sourcing hard-to-get material.
The need for some supplies was so urgent that many missions went from concept to execution in less than a week, he added, attributing the agency’s success to employees “just doing what had to be done for the good of the country.”
DLA Aviation Commander Air Force Brig. Gen. David Sanford, who helped coordinate federal efforts as director of the COVID-19 Supply Chain Task Force, called the agency’s contributions an important part of DLA history.
“We will be captured in every after-action report as a success for being able to step in and provide the capabilities that the other government agencies didn’t have internally,” he said. “DLA was able to step into that gap and support the entire United States, and it’s not often that you get to say that.”
Even as DLA worked to deliver vaccines to overseas employees, it equipped wildfire responders with everything from chainsaws to fire hoses as they fought fires sprawling across millions of acres in numerous states. And in February, the agency supported Texas residents with food and fuel during a record-breaking snow and ice storm that brought multi-day power outages.
Such support is possible and continues to grow partly because of DLA’s alliances with industry, Bunn said.
“DLA is an enormous machine of procurement and logistics so capable at large-scale support that when there’s a requirement that expands beyond DOD, it makes sense for the country, the federal government, the White House and Congress to look to us as a potential solution,” he added.
The nation’s growing reliance on agency capabilities, which include procurement and distribution, suggests the role is permanent for DLA, Bunn continued.
“I think in the future we’ll be seen as thought leaders and consultants on how to best replicate some of these functions, even if we continue to support in areas of our core competencies,” he said.
As DLA celebrates 60 years of logistics support since its Oct. 1, 1961, creation, learn more about the agency’s history and people by visiting DLA’s 60th anniversary website.