CAMP ATTERBURY, Ind., April 17, 2018 —
It seems like a disaster here, but fortunately, it isn’t real.
More than 400 South Carolina Army National Guard soldiers are participating in the U.S. Northern Command-hosted Guardian Response exercise here through April 30. They’re joined by over a thousand other soldiers from the National Guard and reserves, supporting civil authorities for the training. Guardian Response is conducted in conjunction with the U.S. Army North-sponsored Vibrant Response exercise.
Exercise participants react and respond to a variety of scenarios in a mock nuclear event, where terrorists detonated a 20-kiloton dirty bomb in a generic U.S. city.
Army Maj. Gen. Michael Stone, Task Force 46 commander and a Michigan National Guard member, held a mock press conference April 10 to kick off the exercise. “Task Force 46 serves as the command and control of the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Element Bravo, coordinating efforts in case of a catastrophic event in the United States,” Stone said. “Most of the members of Task Force are citizen-soldiers, ready to help their neighbors recover and get back to a sense of normalcy as soon as possible.”
Task Force 46 consists of Element Alpha (Army Reserve troops) and Element Bravo (National Guard forces) from eight states across the U.S. Assets include medics, chemical companies, engineers and other soldiers who are trained to respond to a variety of natural and man-made disasters.
One of the primary units working with TF 46 as Element Bravo was the South Carolina Army National Guard’s 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade. The 218th MEB brought engineers, medics and chemical companies under their command, but also had engineers with the Indiana National Guard working with them during this exercise.
Weapons of Mass Destruction Event
“Our mission is to be a first responder to a weapons of mass destruction event here in the United States,” said Army Col. Robert Carruthers, commander, 218th MEB. “Our two primary missions are technical search and rescue into an area that’s been affected, and mass decontamination and medical care of the civilian population.”
Guardsmen have to be certified and validated annually because of the complexity of their disaster-response mission.
“This training is critical because it is a nonstandard mission for us,” Carruthers said. “We have our main mission, which is our warfighting mission. But this is an additional mission we have as guardsmen, to protect the homeland. Not a lot of people appreciate or understand that the National Guard also has this homeland defense and response mission in which we respond to natural disasters or terrorist events. That is equally important to the warfighting, but to those at home, this mission may be more important than the overseas mission.”
Army Sgt. Kyle Everett, a combat medic with Company B, 1st Battalion, 118th Infantry, 218th MEB, agreed that this training was atypical of what he normally trains for.
“I’m used to combat medic training with my unit,” Everett said. “What we are doing here would be training for in state, so we are treating our own citizens, civilians instead of our battle buddies to our left and right. So, it’s a little different from what I’m used to normally.”
Many of the soldiers involved were looking forward to training for scenarios that they have not experienced as well as working with units whom they were unaccustomed to collaborating with.
“I was looking to see a level of training that I haven’t seen before,” Everett said. “I was looking forward to working with a chemical company, because I’ve never worked with them before or a hospital unit. And working and treating civilians was really gratifying. This was very beneficial for us and I think we accomplished our mission to our utmost ability.”
In order to do the training correctly and to be able to get an idea of what it would feel like in a real scenario, soldiers use the facilities like Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, here, where the ability exists to recreate almost any scenario soldiers may face in a disaster.
Training ‘Has Gone Exceptionally Well’
“The training has gone exceptionally well,” Carruthers said. “The facilities are so advanced and so realistic. In fact, some of the most realistic we have seen. This is why they choose this spot, because they can simulate what it would look like in a real scenario. It’s the closest thing you will ever do, short of a real event.”
Although many of the skills used in the warfighting mission transfer over to homeland protection and recovery, there are other skills that guardsmen will only use in case of a disaster. And, there’s specialized equipment — commercial and medical pieces — that soldiers would only use in the event of a homeland attack or other disaster. All of this adds up to make a cohesive group of military and civilian teams that train together and are prepared to respond to a disaster.
“The camaraderie has been the best part of this training,” said Army Sgt. Larmarion Williams, a firefighter with the 264th Engineer Battalion, South Carolina Army National Guard. “As we go in, we have to work with each other and we rely on each other. So this allows us to know what each of us are capable of. But we all have the same goals: let’s get in, get the job done, get out and make sure the job is done without anyone getting hurt. We want everyone to go home the same way they came.”
The guardsmen and reservists serve a vital role in stateside emergencies like the one in this simulation, serving in support of civilian authorities. The military brings capabilities that provide emergency medical relief, mass casualty and decontamination services, evacuation and ambulatory care, search and rescue assets, and assist other government authorities providing relief to affected citizens.
Ready to Respond
“Our primary mission is to respond to [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] and [defense support of civil authorities] operations in support of civilian authorities when we have mass incidents in the U.S.,” said Army Maj. Brandon Pitcher, executive officer with the 218th MEB. “We are a maneuver enhancement brigade and we do mission command for subordinate battalions. Under us, we have chemical decontamination, search and rescue teams, firefighters, medical teams, and we have a battalion of engineers.”
Because South Carolina and other states’ guardsmen continually train individually and as groups, they are quickly able to plan, prepare, move out, set up and take action when, and if, the need arises.
“We have set up a mass casualty decontamination line to save lives and minimize human suffering to casualties who were exposed to the simulated nuclear detonation,” said Army Maj. David Blackmon, commander of the 251st Area Support Medical Company, South Carolina Army National Guard. Casualty roll players are bused in, form lines and are triaged based off of seriousness of injuries. Next, they are checked out by medics to diagnose what is wrong. Then, they are sent through decontamination by the chemical company and lastly attended to by additional medics.
However, since casualties can come in at any time, not just during daylight hours, soldiers changed shifts and continued to provide the same level of care after sunset.
‘It’s Been a Great Experience’
“It’s been really good and it’s been a great experience because we have been traveling up to Maryland conducting quarterly sustainment training,” Blackmon said.
In addition to the military training soldiers receive at advanced individual training, many of the unit’s soldiers are in school training to be physicians assistants, nurses and paramedics, so they already have hands-on training and experiences to deal with these situations.
Once soldiers from the 218th MEB have completed their training here, they will conduct quarterly training and ensure every unit and every individual is ready.
“Hopefully that day never comes,” Carruthers said, “but we must continue to prepare in our normal training throughout the year in order to be ready to respond.”