"News From The Field" Semper Gumby: Navy Reserve FAOs Deploy to NATO Unit

By Lieutenant Commander Justin A. Dargan, U.S. Navy Reserve


If one were to ascertain the current status and future of NATO using sensationalist news headlines and statements from highly visible political leaders, one would be justified in fearing that the world’s strongest and most historically important military alliance had become irrelevant, teetering on the verge of collapse. A career in the Navy and extensive graduate studies have made me a staunch supporter of the longstanding alliance, and, more broadly, a believer in the importance of America’s network of alliances and partnerships. Multilateralism underpins credibility, and the U.S. has been most successful when acting as part of unified coalitions. Official U.S. policy recognizes the importance of multilateral engagement, and the President’s National Security Strategy specifically spells out steps to “encourage aspiring partners” and “achieve better outcomes in multilateral forums” as crucial to advancing American interests.

In recent years I’ve been pessimistic about the future of NATO, but an ongoing Active Duty for Special Work (ADSW) tour serving as a Navy Foreign Area Officer (FAO) on a multilateral staff has improved my outlook. Since February 2019 I’ve been working hand-in-hand with allied officers from across the NATO spectrum. During this time there has been no shortage of political controversies and conflicts between NATO allies. However, even during the worst such conflicts, the reality on the ground has remained constant. Allied military personnel have continued to work together, remaining apolitical and dedicated to executing the task at hand. The following narrative documents my time spent serving with the Spanish Maritime Forces (SPMARFOR) as a recent, real-life example of how Navy FAOs can help strengthen important multilateral partnerships.

Cultural Immersion and Opportunities to Serve Abroad

Emerging through the customs checkpoint at the Madrid International Airport, I saw legs of jamón ibérico hanging overhead from the airport bars, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona jerseys in seemingly every storefront, and silhouetted bulls plastered on all sorts of corner-store miscellanea aimed at tourists like me. These were all familiar sights that brought back memories from what seemed like a lifetime ago. I’d been here 16 years previously as part of the Naval Academy’s summer study-abroad program. I chose to minor in Spanish, in no small part because I liked the idea of learning about other cultures and, hopefully, getting a chance to experience them firsthand. Growing up lower-middle class in a Midwestern U.S. suburb, I’d never gotten to travel abroad, and this first taste of cultural immersion, as a 21-year-old Second Class Midshipman, sparked a real enthusiasm for multicultural engagement that would stick with me throughout the rest of my Active Duty Naval career. It was the same passion that eventually motivated me to redesignate as a Reserve FAO.   

I’d come to Spain on short notice, having been selected to serve on ADSW orders with the Spanish Maritime Force (SPMARFOR) in Rota. One of five NATO High Readiness Force (Maritime) Headquarters, SPMARFOR had been designated to serve as the Maritime Component Command (MCC) for the NATO Response Force (NRF) during calendar year 2020. However, the command had recently fallen below full-readiness manning levels, understaffed in both national Spanish officers and full-time NATO liaisons. For this reason, an arrangement had been brokered between the U.S. and Spanish Navies, the former having agreed to provide three experienced Naval Reservists to augment SPMARFOR for the preparation and execution of its NRF 2020 responsibilities. Of this group, I was one of two Naval Reserve Component (RC) FAOs selected. The other, whom I would soon meet, was CDR Demetrio Camua.

Tight-knit RC FAO community

A natural born citizen who was born, raised, and educated in the Philippines and only immigrated to the U.S. just after college, CDR Camua is one of the many Navy FAOs who has spent much of his life overseas. This imbues him with globally informed insights that come in handy while working with foreign partners abroad. After four years on Active Duty he transitioned to the Reserve Component to pursue a career in commercial aviation. He subsequently earned his Flight Instructor and Commercial Pilot certification and flew as a First Officer for a regional airline in Florida. 

My own background was also in aviation, having served from 2004 to 2015 as a Naval Flight Officer. After serving my first fleet tour as a controller and mission commander in the Navy’s E-2C Hawkeye, I embarked on a 3-year program exchange tour flying in the E-3D Sentry with the British Royal Air Force. During this time, I also spent considerable time abroad with NATO allies, to include a two-month stint in Italy’s Combined Allied Operations Center during NATO OPERATION UNIFED PROTECTOR. My positive experience serving with my British squadron mates and allied NATO officers further fueled my passion for and belief in the value of foreign engagement. 

Although CDR Camua and I had experienced a good deal of success during our active and reserve naval careers, we had both strayed far from the “golden path” typical of the majority of the service’s most successful career officers. When the Navy Reserve began soliciting applications for the new RC FAO community, each of us saw it as the perfect opportunity to capitalize on our unique talents and give back to the service. By the time I met CDR Camua face-to-face in Rota, it felt like I already knew him. This was due to the close and communicative nature of the RC FAO community – those of us who do not know one another have almost certainly heard about each other from mutual friends and colleagues. 

Since its establishment in late 2015 the RC FAO organization has evolved into an extremely tight knit group of military diplomats specializing in Language, Regional Expertise, and Culture (LREC). In addition to those FAOs who have served in reserve units together, many of us have spent time together face-to-face, mostly through a combination of Joint FAO training in Monterey, CA, region-specific FAO seminars, or FAO Association-sponsored meet-and-greet events in the Washington, DC area. We’ve also interacted with one another in email and on-line groups where community members share information about potential activations, educational opportunities, deployment stories, international relations, and general advice. It was through these informal channels that we’d both found out about our current opportunity in Rota.

Reserve FAOs Provide Immediate Impact

FAOs share a passion for multilateral engagements, building relationships with allies and partners, and promoting allied unity in pursuit of a shared agenda. Possessing the requisite qualifications and committed to achieving these overarching goals was what led CDR Camua and me to become FAOs. As we arrived in Rota, both of us were keen on forging a strong, long-lasting partnership with our Spanish hosts and helping them achieve their 2020 goals. To these ends, and facing our first Active FAO tour abroad, CDR Camua and I were both committed to the “why” and eager to figure out the “how.” 

Upon checking into SPMARFOR, CDR Camua and I quickly integrated into the command staff, filling gapped billets in the N7 Training and N3 Operations departments, respectively. The primary focus was to help SPMARFOR prepare for the successful execution of two large joint NATO exercises in Fall 2019 while deployed at sea on board Spanish Flagship ESPS CASTILLA (L52).  DYNAMIC MARINER was planned for October as a live-fire exercise with a distinctly maritime focus, while November’s follow-on TRIDENT JUPITER was to be a Computer-Assisted Command Post Exercise (CAX/CPX), placing greater emphasis on the Joint element of multinational military operations. Successful completion of both would be necessary to attain the fully mission-capable status required for the official assumption of NRF2020 standby Maritime Component Command duties. 

Based on my background as a Naval Flight Officer, I was assigned to the Air Operations division working as part of the operations planning team ashore, and as the Deputy Director of the Maritime Air Operations Center (MAOC) while on board CASTILLA. With his previous experience as a Training and Readiness Department Head, CDR Camua was billeted as a branch head in the Training and Plans division, working as one of the key officers responsible for the successful overall planning of the upcoming exercises and frequently traveling to represent SPMARFOR at NATO planning conferences. As we settled into our positions and became integrated within the SPMARFOR staff, CDR Camua and I threw ourselves into our roles in the Training and OPS divisions. However, we soon found out that some of the most important contributions to be made existed outside of our defined roles on the NATO staff.

“Semper-Gumby” – An “Always Flexible” State of Mind 

“Semper Gumby” is an old play on the official U.S. Marine Corps and Coast Guard mottos, which is sometimes invoked by service members and first responders to describe the best state of readiness for operational success – “always flexible.” Embracing this mantra has been central to the identity of the RC FAO community as it has evolved during the past five years. Worldwide ADSW and mobilization opportunities have often come on short notice and many of us have needed to respond quickly to an increasing demand for the operational and diplomatic capability offered by a Navy FAO. This flexibility is in keeping with the FAO community writ large – all of the FAOs I’ve worked with, both AC and RC, are forward-leaning and enthusiastic to take on new roles and responsibilities. 

At SPMARFOR our willingness to flex as necessary to support operational requirements has allowed us to fill gaps as they become apparent, boosting command response time and efficiency. As a recent graduate from a writing-intensive Master of Arts program, I found that there was never a shortage of documents, speeches, and high visibility messages in need of writing and editing; and I consistently volunteered my time to these areas as a collateral duty. This especially came in handy during Exercise DYNAMIC MARINER, when SPMARFOR was understaffed in the Public Affairs and Information Operations divisions. Taking over as the Public Affairs Officer during the exercise played to my strengths as a FAO – cultural and media awareness as well as appreciation for the importance of tact and unity of message – areas that overlap significantly with important PAO duties.

For his part, CDR Camua proved to be exceptionally gifted at quickly learning and retaining large amounts of information. An Indo-Pacific FAO without formal training in Spanish, he was at a disadvantage that he overcame by immediately enrolling in Spanish courses after working hours and dedicating ample time to self-study. In just one year his progress has been exceptional. Additionally, during DYNAMIC MARINER, when there was neither a dedicated billet for a Space Warfare specialist nor anybody on staff with substantial experience in this area, CDR Camua enthusiastically volunteered to take on this role. He quickly got up to speed on NATO Space Warfare guiding documents and procedures. As we studied our new collateral duties, public affairs and space warfare, we joked that this was all part of our job description as “Swiss Army knives of military diplomacy.” 

Our high-OPTEMPO period culminated this past fall with the successful execution of NATO evaluation exercises, DYNAMIC MARINER and TRIDENT JUPITER 2019, ultimately resulting in certification of SPMARFOR as fully mission capable. Subsequently, in December 2019 SPMARFOR assumed duties as Maritime Component Command of NRF 2020.  Moreover, successful execution of these exercises offered proof that in spite of political differences, NATO allied militaries are still capable of seamlessly integrating to execute complicated joint military operations. While heads of state and news pundits argued politics, NATO officers maintained a tactful apolitical attitude, working together in support of shared interests. Political challenges will undoubtedly continue into the foreseeable future, but seeing first-hand cooperation between allies has helped to restore my faith in the continuing relevance and lasting nature of the NATO alliance. 

Most recently, the two-star admiral who commands SPMARFOR, impressed with our contribution, recommended that we be extended throughout the duration of SPMARFOR’s designation as NRF2020 MCC. CDR Camua and I are both proud of the work we put into reaching this milestone and are excited to continue working as FAOs to strengthen the relationship with this vital strategic ally for the remainder of our time in Spain.

For me, the journey that began nearly 20 years ago with a study-abroad trip to Spain has come full circle with a successful ADSW tour in the same country. Working with SPMARFOR has also been a personally rewarding career highlight that reinforced my commitment to a continuing career in international relations and military diplomacy. I am proud to serve as a representative of the Navy’s FAO community and excited to do so as an advocate for the program’s future development. 

About the Author

Commander Dargan is a Navy Reserve FAO specializing in the EUCOM AOR. A former Naval Flight Officer and E-2 Hawkeye mission commander, he has served multiple deployments abroad, including a Program Exchange Personnel tour with the British Royal Air Force and Active Duty for Special Work orders with the Spanish Navy. He holds Master of Arts degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the U.S. Naval War College, in International Relations and Defense & Strategic Studies respectively.