FORT JACKSON, S.C. — Twenty-five soldiers, bloodied and groaning, were laid out shoulder-to-shoulder on large canvas tarps spread on a parking lot in front of a nondescript office building at Fort Jackson. Each tarp was a different color: Green, yellow and red.
Green was for the most fortunate, soldiers only lightly wounded by the two “gunmen” who had “opened fire” — as part of a training exercise — in the office building early Tuesday morning. Yellow was for the more seriously wounded. Red indicated a life in danger.
In all, Tuesday’s exercise at the nation’s largest training facility registered 22 soldiers killed in the mock Fort Hood-type shooting and 47 wounded — all pretend, of course.
“That (number) is not unrealistic,” said Brig. Gen. Bryan Roberts, the base commander. “If an incident like this does take place, this exercise will save lives.”
Once a year, Fort Jackson, which trains 50,000 new soldiers annually, conducts a “mass casualty” exercise. It is intended to coordinate the response of security and emergency services from not only Fort Jackson, but surrounding counties and cities as well.
“This number of casualties would overwhelm our (base) hospital,” said Fort Jackson spokesman Pat Jones. “If you don’t practice, it becomes pandemonium. All these different entities do the same thing, but sometimes the methods are different.”
In November 2009, Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, that killed 13 people and wounded more than two dozen others. Tuesday’s training exercise at Fort Jackson used a similar scenario.
In the exercise: Two gunmen enter the Warrior Transition Unit in the Maj. Gen. John A. Renner Building and open fire. They kill 20 people and wound 47 others before being killed themselves by the post’s Strategic Response Team.
Bloody mannequins mark the locations of the victims, complete with grisly pools of fake blood and yellow markers indicating the spent shells of the bullets that “killed” them. Soldiers with fake rubber wounds and disturbingly realistic makeup are lined up on stretchers.
The exercise covers all aspects of the event, from the initial call to the security response, the medical treatment to the crime scene investigation. Counselors are even called in to assist the victims’ families.
All the while, the fort’s anti-terrorism officer and drill coordinator Mark Mallach is instructing, coordinating and in some cases dressing down crews from numerous agencies in Richland, Lexington and Fairfield counties.
“We need to build good relationships,” he said. “We need to all speak the same language.”
In all, about 150 people participated in the exercise, including Richland County Coroner Gary Watts and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.
“This exercise allows us to make mistakes and nobody gets killed,” Lott said.
But a shooting is just one of the scenarios covered by the annual exercises. Regional responders and the Army also have to be prepared for everything from a terrorist bombing to a hurricane.
It isn’t just the personal tragedy that is at stake in the exercises, Roberts said, but the nation’s military readiness as well. He noted the fort’s mission to keep a steady stream of new soldiers flowing into the Army.
“And we can’t afford to stop that production,” he said.