NAVAL SUPPORT FACILITY INDIAN HEAD, Md. — The first active-duty unit dedicated to supporting U.S. civilian authorities in the event of a nuclear, biological or chemical attack recently wrapped up three days of intensive training its members hope they never have to apply in real life.
Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team got hands-on training in skills they would depend on to provide humanitarian support during a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive incident, known here as a CBRNE.
The "Rock of the Marne" division, which returned to Fort Stewart, in early spring from its third deployment to Iraq, was designated on Oct. 1 as part of the CBRNE Consequence Management Force. The force includes various military assets assigned to U.S. Northern Command that could be called on to respond to a natural or manmade disaster.
The division will conduct the mission for a year, rotating its six divisions through escalating readiness levels, explained Army Col. Roger Cloutier, who commands the 1st Brigade "Raiders." After that, the mission will pass to other Army brigade combat teams.
If first responders found themselves short of manpower or equipment in a disaster, they could tap into the team through U.S. Northern Command and Joint Task Force Civil Support.
"I can't think of a more noble mission than saving American lives at home," Cloutier said, citing the "phenomenal responsibility" it entails. "Every single soldier and Marine here takes this very personally. You can see it on the faces of my soldiers."
About 200 of Cloutier's soldiers came here to learn the ropes in a realistic setting from the experts: the Marine Corps Chemical Biological Incident Response Force. The Marines stood up the unit in 1996 in response to a subway sarin gas attack in Tokyo. Today, it remains the only active-duty element that trains daily in CBRNE consequence management.
The training realism began before the soldiers ever reached the Indian Head facility. They received a no-notice alert at 4:30 a.m. Dec. 8 and deployed just over 24 hours later from Hunter Army Airfield with four aircraft, about 15 vehicles and other equipment and gear.
Exercises at the Marines' Raymond M. Downey Sr. Responder Training Facility gave the soldiers insight into the conditions and challenges they likely would face if called to help rescue victims and provide temporary life support during a disaster.
"This is as realistic as I imagine it can get," said Army Lt. Col. Joel Hamilton as two of his soldiers burst from a smoke-filled building carrying the mannequin they had searched through the dark to locate. "My soldiers are being stressed with some very realistic scenarios."
Hamilton, who commands the 1st Battalion, 41st Field Artillery, looked on as the soldiers navigated under and through "collapsed" structures and walls and felt their way through dark, smoke-filled buildings and confined spaces to search for survivors.
Working in buddy teams, they inched through spaces as tight as two feet by two feet, wearing blacked-out gas masks that offered zero visibility. They yelled directions to the man behind them, their voices rising over rap music the Marines had cranked up to further confuse the situation.
As the soldiers moved, each maintained at least three points of contact on the floors and walls at all times to keep from getting disoriented. "This is all by feel and communication," Hamilton said.
At another station, the soldiers practiced the techniques to lift seemingly unmovable 17,000-pound concrete beams to reach people trapped beneath. Meanwhile, other soldiers tried their hand at using the "jaws of life" and other equipment to free passengers "trapped" in their vehicles.
The Marines focused on safety throughout the training, emphasizing how quickly first responders can become victims themselves. "We don't want to be the rescuers who need rescuing," said Staff Sgt. Ray Johnstone, an M109 Palladin crew chief.
"It's all about teamwork," he said. "Teamwork is what gets the job done safely and effectively. And it's what we're doing here."
Cloutier credited teamwork the brigade built during 15 months in Iraq's Anbar province with giving its soldiers a leg up on their new mission. Junior leaders developed critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, and soldiers learned how to interact with other coalition forces as well as Iraqi military and local government leaders.
And just as they understood in Iraq that they were supporting Iraqi army and police forces, they understand that if called to respond to a CBRNE incident, they'll support state and local authorities, Cloutier said.
"We understand our role, and the fact that we are not in charge," he said. "We are here to help and to find out, 'What do you need?'
The biggest strength his unit would bring to the mission, Cloutier said, is "4,000 soldiers with a can-do attitude who are here to help."
That can-do attitude was evident yesterday as "hoo-ahs" rang through the training area and soldiers exhibited ear-to-ear smiles as they moved between training stations.
"I'm loving every minute of this!" exclaimed Army Spc. David Johnson as he prepared to enter the "smokehouse" facility. "This is something like the coolest training I've had in three years in the Army. And it's all teamwork."
Army Spc. David Draper called helping remove the doors and roof of a beat-up 1991 Cutlass to free a "trapped" passenger "a really good time." But after growing up in the Midwest, and seeing the devastation from floods, tornadoes and ice storms, he said the significance of the CBRNE mission goes deeper.
"I'm pretty excited that we have the utilities to go out and help save people," he said. "This is more of the stuff I joined the Army for."
With 10 years in the Army, and a long string of deployments under his belt -- to Kosovo, Afghanistan and three to Iraq – Johnstone called the CBRNE mission a welcome opportunity to serve his own countrymen.
"We're ecstatic about it," he said of the mission. "This is something new and different. It's about actively saving lives," he said. "Hopefully we never have to get the call to do it. But if we get that call, we are ready."