MUSCATATUCK, Ind. – Almost 200 New York Army National Guard Soldiers from the 101st Expeditionary Signal Battalion and 204th Engineer Battalion were among 4,200 troops taking part in an exercise testing their ability to respond to a nuclear attack.
The Guardian Response exercise was held April 19-20 at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana. The training center is a former psychiatric center converted to represent a typical urban area. The 101st Signal Battalion sent 138 troops of Bravo Company to Muscatatuck, while 59 Soldiers from the Headquarters Company of the 204th Engineers took part in the exercise.
The annual exercise involves Army National Guard, Army Reserve and active Army forces working together to respond to a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack or accident, known as a CBRN incident.
The scenario for the 2021 exercise revolved around the detonation of a nuclear device with a 20-kiloton yield.
The exercise used actual debris and role-players for casualties to test the capabilities of response forces. Soldiers had to decontaminate personnel, extract casualties and conduct medical triage.
“Participating in the event allows them to practice with the units that they would be called upon to support in the event of an actual large-scale CBRN event,” said Col. Seth Morgulas, the commander of the 369th Sustainment Brigade.
The troops are able to practice rapid deployment while also training with new units, “rather than just going to the same local training areas over and over,” Morgulas said.
The job for the Soldiers from Bravo Company was to keep the communications working, explained Capt. Sean Gallagher, the company commander.
“If a CBRN event occurs in the United States, we are the communications that allow everybody talks to each other and enables mission command to conduct operations,” Gallagher said.
The signal Soldiers used their skills and high-tech equipment to establish Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), internet, phone and satellite transmission links to keep units communicating. The network they set up let the military units talk to each other and allowed notional civilian police, fire and rescue units to talk with the military, Gallagher said.
In this exercise, his team supported the 119th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion of the New Jersey Army National Guard, which was the responding force.
Working with another signal unit was good training for his Soldiers, said Lt. Col. Mario Coaxum, the commander of the 119th.
“We are generally self-sustaining, so having the 101st add their skills to the fight has been awesome,” Coaxum said. “They provided us a command post node and set us up with VOIPs. They've increased our bandwidth for internet, which has been helpful because we got a lot of folks that need to use it.”
Responding to CBRN events requires coordinating the activities of a large variety of forces across a wide area. Soldiers have to operate inside and outside a “hot zone” where the contaminant, chemical or radiological event occurred, Coaxum explained.
“As logisticians, we expect to provide outstanding customer service to our partners, and the 101st is actually enabling us to reach our folks down there in the hot zone, and it’s been a great experience and a good partnership,” he said. “I hope we can continue to have that relationship between New Jersey and New York in the future.”
The Soldiers from the 204th Engineers served as the battalion headquarters element for National Guard engineers and chemical decontamination specialists from the California Army National Guard and medics from the Indiana National Guard, said Lt. Col. Brandon Gendron, the 204th Engineer Battalion commander.
The overall task force mission run by the New York Soldiers provides search and rescue, decontamination and mass casualty triage operations to the incident commander, Gendron said.
"I think this exercise broadened our perspective on these types of disaster response mission sets, which will posture us well for future operations," Gendron said.
In the area where buildings were destroyed by the simulated blast, Soldiers from California’s 216th Engineer Company donned protective suits and worked to search for and extract victims.
A key requirement for the 204th Engineer Soldiers was to translate missions from “heavy CBRN lingo” into terms the combat engineers understand when defining what missions need to be accomplished, said Sgt. 1st Class Jessica Gonzalez, the battalion’s CBRN specialist.
Soldiers responding to a nuclear incident have to have a clear understanding of what happened and what is required to talk to the civilians in charge of the incident response, Gonzalez said.
The engineers operating in the hot zone gather information and data to help civilians and military personnel make informed decisions.
“We translate between our units downrange as far as exposure levels and how that will affect the mass population from the type of exposure; its levels and whether there are short-term or long-term effects,” she said.
The California Army National Guard’s 140th Chemical Company ran the decontamination mission. The Indiana National Guard’s 738th Area Support Medical Company conducted medical tracking of radiation exposure and cared for the CBRN response forces.
Everyone worked together as if they had been doing this for a long time, despite most Soldiers at the exercise performing these missions for the first time, Gonzalez said.
Once outside the hot zone and decontaminated, the medics of the 738th assessed and recorded radiation exposure and reported the information to the 204th Engineer command post.
The COVID-19 pandemic “robbed” the 738th Medical Company of valuable training time, so this exercise was a good chance to practice, said Maj. Brandon Lee, commander of the 738th Medical Company.
“The positive attitude has been great,” Lee said. “They are eager and willing to work hard.”