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JBLM bomb team takes on homeland threat in exercise

It would have been a simple matter in Afghanistan.

Confronted with a van packed with explosives, the bomb-disposal team would have cleared the area and blown the vehicle sky-high.

Things get trickier and more deliberative for technicians in the Air Force unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord when the van is parked in front of a hangar at McChord Field, as it was Wednesday during a daylong security exercise. They couldn’t just detonate the bomb; they had to neutralize it.

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The handling of the bomb-laden van offered more evidence of the adjustments soldiers and airmen here are making after more than a decade’s worth of deployments.

“We have to work extra hard to keep the peacetime mission foremost in our minds,” said Tech. Sgt. Heidi Leon, flight chief for the 627th Civil Engineer Squadron Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight.

The unit has deployed multiple times to defuse bombs and improvised explosive devices in combat zones.

It was among the many units on base put to the test to protect people and property against several imagined threats. Two other scenarios played out during Wednesday’s exercises: a gunman on base and a hostage situation. In addition, officials tightened security for drivers entering gates and people entering buildings. The Army requires the exercise once a year.

As first responders worked to neutralize each simulated threat, officials back at the emergency operations center at the garrison headquarters monitored the situation.

Ed Wood, Lewis-McChord’s emergency manager, said Tuesday’s deadly shooting at a shopping mall outside Portland reaffirms the exercise’s importance. It has been in the works for weeks.

“These kind of events can happen anywhere, anytime, and we need to be ready,” he said.

Recent history reinforces his point. In July 2009, a retired soldier from Lakewood shot and killed a woman working at Fort Lewis’ main post exchange, then fatally wounded himself. Four months later, an Army major opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 people and wounding 29 others in the deadliest shooting ever on a U.S. military base.

Wednesday’s heightened security caused delays at Lewis-McChord; officials there said they took steps to prevent the exercise from delaying traffic on Interstate 5.

The last time Lewis-McChord evacuated its emergency operations center for a real-world incident was in March 2011. Military families were evacuating Japan following the tsunami and nuclear disaster.

 

Christian Hill: 253-274-7390 / christian.hill@thenewstribune.com

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