By Sgt. Linsey Williams, Minnesota National GuardFebruary 4, 2020
MINNEAPOLIS - It's no secret that the National Guard is always ready to respond to domestic emergencies and natural disasters. Soldiers and Airmen don their uniforms at a moment's notice and pause their civilian lives to march toward any challenge.
Lesser seen, though, are teams that seamlessly blend in with their counterparts from other agencies. Teams like the 55th Civil Support Team in St. Paul, Minnesota. With khaki cargo pants, navy blue polos and black tactical vests, the CST hardly look like a traditional Active Guard/Reserve (AGR) force.
"There are 57 teams in the country. Each team is comprised of 22 AGR, mixed with Army and Air," said Lt. Col. Ryan Cochran, commander of the 55th CST. "It's very specialized; each functional area has its own training requirements. That includes HAZMAT operations, technician certifications and -- based on the functional area of expertise -- you have to go anywhere from one to three years of continuing education."
This is in addition to the traditional required military education.
"We attend battle rhythm meetings with interagency partners on a monthly basis, to prevent interagency fratricide, as I like to call it," Cochran said. "We understand the training and the environment of our interagency partners … and the relationships we have with them are outstanding."
Jan. 14 and 16, the 55th CST trained on its 12 mission essential tasks in an exercise evaluated by Army North. Under the scenario, the team encountered a threat during a routine sweep. Members worked through proper handling of the situation, identifying whether the threat was explosive, chemical or radiological, then turned to mitigation procedures. Army North validated the 55th CST's performance with full marks.
"There were really no comments for things to fix," said Cochran. "It was really more ... 'keep doing what you're doing,' and that was great to hear from an external evaluator like Army North."
Training on Jan. 14 took place at the stadium where the NFL's Minnesota Vikings play. Training Jan. 16 moved to the home field of the Minnesota United soccer team. The 55th CST routinely operates at these locations before home games, checking for threats and ensuring public safety. Throughout the week, the team worked with the Minneapolis Police Department bomb squad, the local FBI office and the St. Paul Fire Department to develop and maintain interagency interoperability.
"I can't even count on one hand how many interagency training events we have done like this one," said Sgt. Erik Wellman, a member of the 55th CST survey section. "Our team is very good about keeping a tight loop between all the agencies to make sure we produce the best possible protocols and plans of attack to not only keep us safe but the people of Minnesota and surrounding states."
The 22-person CST is broken into sections. The survey section is the primary force provider, conducting site characterization, reconnaissance and initial sampling of substances. Surveyors maintain and calibrate breathing apparatuses and other safety equipment.
Two people make up the team's decontamination section and have parallel duties in administration and logistics.
The communications section also has two experts who train for three years. In the operations section, there are two officers and one noncommissioned officer who prepare for worst-case scenarios. The command section consists of the commander, deputy and first sergeant.
The medical/analytical section is a critical part of the CST, and often includes a physician's assistant/medical officer. The 55th CST has Maj. "Doc" Allen Autrey, the only medical doctor in that position in the country. A medical NCO is also on the team, as well as an officer responsible for understanding local hospitals and support networks in case of mass casualty triage.
"The 55th CST is a great place for people who really want a new perspective on the military, and want to accept a good challenge in life," Wellman said. "This unit is very dynamic, and you gain a huge amount of knowledge from the people that come from these different backgrounds and life experiences.
"To me, the knowledge and perspective I have gained are indispensable," he said. "This unit has definitely made me a better person. I have discovered weaknesses I didn't even know I had and now built strengths and learned new skills that I now will be able to take with me the rest of my career."