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One-of-a-kind unit trains for hazardous situations

Operation Cobalt Dragon

RHINE ORDNANCE BARRACKS, Germany — In the two years since the 773rd Civil Support Team stood up, its 22 soldiers have yet to use their expertise in a real-world situation, and that’s just fine with the unit commander for whom no news is good news.

A call for the unit’s assistance would mean “people are hurt or people are dying,” said Army Lt. Col. Leslie Dillard, the commander since Nov. 1 of this little-known unit in Kaiserslautern.

So far, the dreaded “bad situation” has only been written into what-if scenarios the unit trains for, such as Operation Cobalt Dragon, held in a warehouse at ROB last week.

The 773rd soldiers, along with soldiers and airmen from Germany who might assist the unit in a real event, practiced responding to a sudden outbreak of illness at a fictitious holiday gathering on a U.S. military base in Europe.

According to the exercise script, people were initially sickened by a substance found in a cooler, a ploy to get them to evacuate the building, where, along the way, a planted device released the plague.

Donning oxygen masks and protective suits that looked similar to those worn by Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo in the 1995 movie “Outbreak,” the troops must identify the hazardous materials as quickly as possible and then recommend proper medical treatment, officials said.

Possessing that specialized military capability in Europe was deemed important enough to create a unit that’s one of a kind: The 773rd is the only active Army Reserve Civil Support Team in the Defense Department, according to Lt. Col. Mike Stewart, spokesman for the 7th Civil Support Command, of which the 773rd is a part.

The civil support team is ready to deploy in response to a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incident, primarily throughout the U.S. European Command area of responsibility, but also in Africa, if requested, Dillard said.

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Request for assistance from a host nation would have to come through the U.S. State Department, officials said.

The civil support job in Europe fell to the Army Reserve because, along with the National Guard, it’s responsible for a similar mission in the United States, where it’s called consequence management, Dillard said. “We have the expertise,” she said.

Many of the members with the 773rd had jobs in the medical field or hazardous-materials training before they volunteered or were selected for full-time military duty, said Sgt. 1st Class Jay Drucas, the unit’s operations and training noncommissioned officer.

One soldier is a chemist who ran a university chemistry lab. Another is a nurse practitioner. Drucas, of Salem, Mass., is a hazardous material technician.

Not all of the soldiers came to the unit with experience in the field, and some of them have received up to 1,800 hours of training over the last two years, Drucas said. Previous jobs of some include a boat captain, flight attendant, car salesman and a moving company worker, he said.

Along with skills, the team is equipped with the only U.S. military mobile lab in the European theater and the Army Reserve, officials said.

The lab, which looks like a big, blue ambulance, allows soldiers to analyze a potential contaminant quickly and on the spot. But this state-of-the art equipment means the unit is expensive, Dillard said.

Army officials say the expense is justified. The unit not only can protect U.S. citizens in Europe, but also U.S. partners and allies, a goal that is part of President Barack Obama’s national security strategy, Stewart said.

“If that big thing happens, you have earned your money with us then,” Dillard said.

svanj@estripes.osd.mil

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