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KATUSA soldiers of the U.S. Army's 23rd Chemical Battalion practice chemical decontamination of terrain, at Camp Carroll in Waegwan, South Korea.
KATUSA soldiers of the U.S. Army's 23rd Chemical Battalion practice chemical decontamination of terrain, at Camp Carroll in Waegwan, South Korea. (Courtesy of U.S. Army)
KATUSA soldiers of the U.S. Army's 23rd Chemical Battalion practice chemical decontamination of terrain, at Camp Carroll in Waegwan, South Korea.
KATUSA soldiers of the U.S. Army's 23rd Chemical Battalion practice chemical decontamination of terrain, at Camp Carroll in Waegwan, South Korea. (Courtesy of U.S. Army)
At Camp Carroll in Waegwan, South Korea, members of the Army's 23rd Chemical Battalion pose during demonstrations of battlefield decontamination methods held in July 2002.
At Camp Carroll in Waegwan, South Korea, members of the Army's 23rd Chemical Battalion pose during demonstrations of battlefield decontamination methods held in July 2002. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)

TAEGU, South Korea — If Pfc. Kim Min-soo ever has to treat a fellow soldier after a battlefield chemical attack, he knows exactly what to do.

Kim is a KATUSA, a South Korean soldier assigned to the U.S. Army. He’s a member of the 23rd Chemical Battalion at Camp Carroll in Waegwan.

The chemical battalion’s soldiers are trained to decontaminate terrain, buildings and people who have had contact with chemical agents.

Infantry and other units are responsible for treating their own soldiers for chemical contamination. The 23rd Chemical Battalion’s main mission is decontaminating terrain and “fixed sites” such as buildings.

Still, treating individuals is part of the battalion’s job.

Kim knows he can use a handheld meter to detect chemical agents on a soldier’s body. And he can use what he calls “M291 paper,” a small paper towel impregnated with charcoal, to decontaminate the soldier.

“I take off his mask, use M291, and we just decon your face and hands,” said Kim.

He also knows what can happen to a soldier hit by chemical attack if the unit doesn’t include such a decontamination specialist.

“Then, he will die, actually,” said Kim, “and his buddy can die, too.”

But Kim knew none of that when he arrived four months ago. He and other KATUSAs received Korean Army basic training but not the advanced chemical training that their U.S. counterparts receive after basic training.

To give the KATUSAs that additional instruction, the battalion runs its own school, the Decontamination Training Academy-Korea, or DTAK.

Of the unit’s 460 troops, 270, or 60 percent, are KATUSAs. They have at least some English-speaking ability.

“It was activated so we could rapidly integrate the KATUSAs into the units so they could successfully perform their duties,” said Maj. Jim Bonner, the battalion’s executive officer and DTAK commandant.

“It means that when a soldier arrives to his company, he is fully trained, and prepared to integrate with his squad or platoon,” said Lt. Col. Bill Barnett, battalion commander.

The DTAK runs five to seven classes a year and trains about 140 KATUSAs. Three instructors from the Army’s Korean Service Corps Battalion teach the classes.

Each class cycle spans about seven weeks, with 15 to 25 students per class.

The school devotes the first four weeks to decontamination training. The fundamentals of NBC — nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare are covered first. Then comes training in how to detect NBC agents. A third phase covers NBC equipment.

Next comes 100 hours of driver training spread across three weeks. Driving skills are critically important because so much of the unit’s equipment is truck-mounted and, said Cho Hyong-suk, DTAK senior instructor, most soldiers lack experience driving big vehicles.

Besides classroom and driving instruction, Bonner said, students rely heavily on the KATUSA who functions as their platoon sergeant.

“The platoon sergeant has come through the company, went through the DTAK course before, has served 18 months already in the company,” he said. “The platoon sergeant plays a key part.”

Sgt. Oh Yung-ho, the platoon sergeant, remembers arriving at the battalion about a year and a half ago, a nervous, apprehensive young KATUSA private.

“At that time, first of all, I am Korean and I am here — a lot of U.S. soldiers, and it’s my first time,” said Oh. “And all the senior KATUSA soldiers, they are senior to me, so it’s natural I’m very nervous.”

Now, it’s Oh the KATUSAs seek out.

“During the formation I ask them, ‘What’s going on and what you guys need?’”

Differences of language, culture and organization actually pose minimal difficulties, even with KATUSAs making up more than half the troop strength.

“There’s really very few challenges,” Barnett said. “The KATUSA soldiers are already very well versed in the English language, and we use Korean Service Corps as well as KATUSA soldiers to instruct.”

That makes the unit extraordinary.

“Absolutely, it’s unique in that this school is run by the battalion,” Barnett said. “I know of no other organization that does this type of training, particularly as it relates to KATUSA soldiers.”

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