Chemical unit trains to respond to stateside emergencies
By Amanda Dolasinski | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 21, 2016
Disoriented and yelling, a man stumbled up to a group of masked, suited-up people begging for help.
In this training scenario, the man had just been exposed to a nuclear explosion. The people in the white protective suits – Fort Bragg soldiers specially trained to respond to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear emergencies – calmly scanned the man with a wand to determine if he had been exposed.
"There are only a select few to our job," said Spc. Brian Patterson, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist for the 21st Chemical Company. "The most rewarding part is knowing I'm making a difference and serving my country."
Soldiers of the 21st Chemical Company, who traditionally train for deployments and are responsible for defending the country against the threat of weapons of mass destruction, shifted their focus to procedures for handling a nuclear contamination stateside. They ran through the scenario Wednesday with soldiers from the 118th Military Police Battalion and 36th Area Support Medical Company.
Their goal is to decontaminate about 200 people or 70 non-ambulatory people in an hour.
In the exercise, people either walked up to or were transported by litter to the soldiers with the 21st Chemical Company.
The chemical soldiers did an initial exam by using a special wand to detect exposure to radiation. Exposed patients were sent to tents to go through the decontamination process.
Patients who could walk moved through a tent to remove their clothing, rinse under hot water and dress in sterile clothing provided to them.
In another tent, contaminated patients who could not walk remained on the litter as chemical soldiers moved them down a counter to cut their clothing, rinse their bodies and wrap them in blankets.
"They provide a unique skill," said Capt. Victoria Wallace, commander of the 21st Chemical Company.
"They really take it seriously," she said. "It could happen in a state the soldier is from. The previous training has been for deployments; now it's decontaminating in your town. When this happens, it's to mitigate the suffering and save lives."
In a real-life situation, chemical company soldiers would receive orders to respond from the secretary of defense. They would team up with local, state and federal officials to determine procedures for decontamination.
Although rarely called upon for decontamination missions, the soldiers must be ready to go.
Leading up to the decontamination exercise, the chemical soldiers had already been trained and certified on hazardous material handling and procedures. They must wear protective suits, gloves, boots and masks while working.
Noticeably absent are the soldiers' weapons and Stryker vehicles.
"We're cognizant of our posture," Wallace said. "We don't want to look forceful."
It's the only chemical company on Fort Bragg and has about 100 soldiers. There are a few other chemical companies at Army installations across the country.
Wallace said the soldiers are training to stay sharp for upcoming national events.
They could be called upon for the Democratic or Republican conventions, or the presidential inauguration, she said. In the past, the Army's chemical soldiers responded to Hurricane Katrina, she said.
The 21st Chemical Company is part of the active-duty Defense Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Response Force, which consists of 5,200 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who deploy to conduct urban search and rescue, patient decontamination, casualty ground/air evacuation and general logistical support.
The response force is part of the larger Task Force Operations, which is equipped to conduct initial rapid response missions, such as casualty search and rescue, patient decontamination, incident site surveying and monitoring.
Another piece of the training incorporated soldiers of the 118th Military Police Company, 503d Military Police Battalion, 16th Military Police Brigade. Instead of security and patrol, the soldiers were tasked as general support to control the flow of incoming patients.
Capt. Jaysen Ryberg, commander of the company, said it's the first time the soldiers have been able to participate in such training.
"The most important thing is saving as many lives as we can," Ryberg said. "With training like this, I'm confident they can."
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