Story by Sgt. Brad Mincey
108th Public Affairs Detachment
CAMP ATTERBURY, IN — Crumpled cars were stacked on top of one another. Shredded clothing and debris littered the landscape in front of buildings with blown out windows. Tired, hungry, thirsty, and injured citizens walked around in a zombie-like state, desperately seeking assistance. A scene like this is a community’s worst nightmare and one areas around the world have experienced following catastrophic events. For this scene however, it was fortunate to be part of a training exercise called “Guardian Response,” with staged missions, props and actors.
More than 400 South Carolina Army National Guard Soldiers participated in Guardian Response at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, from April 2-30, 2018. They joined over a thousand other Soldiers from the National Guard and Reserves supporting civil authorities for the training. Hosted by U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), the participants reacted and responded to a variety of scenarios in a mock nuclear event, where terrorists detonated a 20 kiloton dirty bomb in a generic U.S. city.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Michael Stone, Task Force 46 commander, and Michigan National Guardsman, 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 (CBRNE) Bravo, coordinating efforts in case of a catastrophic event in the United States,” said Stone. “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 Reserves) and Element Bravo (National Guard) from eight states across the U.S. Assets include medics, chemical companies, engineers and other Soldiers who are able 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 (MEB). 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.
“Our mission is to be a first responder to a weapons of mass destruction event here in the United States,” said U.S. 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 certify and validate once a year because of how complex these missions are.
“This training is critical because it is a non-standard mission for us,” said Carruthers. “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.”
U.S. 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,” said Everett. “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,” said Everett. “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, near Camp Atterbury, where the ability exists to recreate almost any scenario Soldiers may face in a disaster.
“The training has gone exceptionally well,” said Carruthers. “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 closet thing you will ever do, short of a real event.”
Although many of the skills used in the warfighting mission easily transfer over to homeland protection and recovery, there are other skills that Guardsmen will only use in case of a disaster. There are even 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 ready to unify in case of a disaster.
“The comradery has been the best part of this training,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Larmarion Williams, a firefighter with the 264th Engineer Battalion, S.C. 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 Guard and Reserve troops serve a vital role in state-side 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 help other government authorities provide relief to affected citizens.
“Our primary mission is to respond to CBRN and DSCA (defense support of civil authorities) operations in support of civilian authorities when we have mass incidents in the U.S.,” said U.S. Army Maj. Brandon Pitcher, executive officer, 218th MEB (Task Force Operations). “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 state’s Guardsmen continually train individually and as groups, like in Vibrant Response, they are quickly able to plan, prepare, move out, set up and take action when, and if, the need arises.
“We have set up an MCD (Mass Casualty Decontamination) line to save lives and minimize human suffering to casualties who were exposed to the simulated nuclear detonation,” said U.S. Army Maj. David Blackmon, commander 251st Area Support Medical Company, S.C. Army National Guard. Casualty roll players are bussed 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 anytime, not just during daylight hours, Soldiers changed shifts and continued to provide the same level of care after sunset, performing night operations.
“It’s been really good and it’s been a great experience because we have been traveling up to Maryland conducting quarterly sustainment training,” said Blackmon.
In addition to the military training Soldiers receive at Advanced Individual Training (AIT), 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.
“We know once we are validated by ARNORTH and leave here that we are confident we have the skills and are prepared for a real-world event,” said Blackmon.
Once Soldiers from the 218th MEB have completed their training at Atterbury, they will conduct quarterly training and make sure every unit and every individual is ready.
“Hopefully that day never comes,” said Carruthers, “but we must continue to prepare in our normal training throughout the year in order to be ready to respond.”