COLUMBUS, Ind. (Army News Service, May 14, 2007) - When National Guard planners set in motion a training exercise to test the force's abilities as the first military responder to a catastrophic nuclear explosion, it was destined to fail.
That's exactly what they wanted.
National Guard Chief Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum said yesterday his staff deliberately put together the worst possible scenario that would test the limits of the Guard's ability to respond to such a disaster and interact with other state and federal agencies.
That scenario played out on a sprawling, 1,000-acre rural training area just outside of Indianapolis, Ind., as more than 2,000 National Guard troops and hundreds of state and federal emergency response agencies worked through the disaster scenario of a 10-kiloton nuclear explosion in Indianapolis.
Named "Vigilant Guard," the exercise put into place new capabilities and technologies - nearly all of which have been developed since 9/11 - that have yet to be tested in an exercise of this scale.
"This exercise is designed to see how far we can go," Lt. Gen. Blum said. "We are trying to find out what we can do and what we need to work on. We will stress this exercise until we fail."
In fact, even as early communications problems were overcome, Lt. Gen. Blum said they would continue to stress any successful solutions until they, too, would eventually fail.
"We're not setting this thing up to work. We're setting it up to stress it," he said.
"We have got to plan for the worst and exercise for the worst-case situation so that when this nation is attacked, we are best prepared as possible," he continued. "We owe it to the American people to be as fully prepared as we can, so we're going to make this exercise as demanding as possible."
As military helicopters circled the skies of the self-contained city-like training area at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, the sights and sounds certainly resembled that of a disaster area. Smoke rose from rubble piles as jackhammers blasted away at the piles of concrete. Humvees and emergencies response vehicles scattered the area. Satellite communications gear poked up outside a city of tents and travel trailers that served as command posts.
Those simulating being injured cried as they were carried to decontamination tents where their "wounds" could be cared for. Trained canines sniffed for bodies in the rubble. Nearby, a crew extracted a person from a multi-story high rise by strapping her to a gurney and lowering her down the side of the building.
Lt. Gen. Blum rejected reporter's comments that the training was rehearsed. He said the only things missing from the training, thankfully, were actual injuries. Everything else was as realistic as safety constraints would allow.
"Go look at these guys. There's nothing simulated about the perspiration and the fatigue that they're feeling while doing this," Lt. Gen. Blum said.
The top guard officer in Indiana echoed Lt. Gen. Blum's comments.
"We learned in the military a long time ago how to train - you don't do it with table top exercises - you gotta' roll in the weeds, you gotta' get in the mud," said Indiana Adjutant General Army Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger.
The adjutant general said that his state simulated a request for about 80,000 guardsmen to respond to the disaster. In reality, guardsmen from surrounding states responded, including Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois.
"We're doing this from the local level all the way to the national level. We are here training and we are learning a lot," Maj. Gen. Umbarger said.
The first civilian responders on the scene were made up of emergency management and response crews from a 700-person rotation out of the Indianapolis area, said Earl Morgan, director of public safety for Indianapolis.
He said that this training is critical to establishing the relationships that would be needed during an actual emergency. Prior coordination makes actual relief efforts seamless and instills confidence in the community, he said.
"We cannot over emphasize how important it is that all of these threads work together in a common way so that our response efforts are coordinated. One of the things that we know at the local level is that, if those threads do not connect in a common way, the citizens will ... start to lose confidence in the local units of government," Mr. Morgan said.
At the sight of the collapsed building, Air Force Lt. Col. Kim Sencingiver said efforts to extract simulated victims were working well between the civilian and military responders.
"It's outstanding. The National Guard and the local responders have been doing an excellent job," she said. "The interoperability has been wonderful. We are working closely together sharing information and skills are very similar."
One of the noncommissioned officers in the Guard's newly formed Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Enhanced Response Force Package, or CERFP teams, said this training was "fantastic."
"Our guys are motivated and well trained. They are doing exactly what they are trained to do -- better than anybody expected," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Ted Blanford, a member of the search and extraction team from the 1194th Engineer Company from Ohio.
"We have a very clear purpose. We know that we are here to save lives and that's what we're doing," he said.
Lt. Gen. Blum said training events such as Vigilant Guard, and emerging technologies, have made the Guard "dramatically" more prepared for such a disaster, but that he will never be fully satisfied.
"We're never going to be satisfied; nor should we be," Lt. Gen. Blum said.
"The American people deserve the best response we can give them. The only way (we) can do that is to have the best people you can find. Train them to the most demanding standard you can, and give them the best equipment you can find in the world, and then you have a capability that hopefully can save you and your family when you need it," he said.
Under the umbrella of the U.S. Northern Command's preparedness exercise "Ardent Sentry," Vigilant Guard is part of a triad of recent Guard exercises, the other two being "Northern Edge" and "Hurrex." Northern Edge started May 7 and runs through May 18 and is a joint training exercise in Alaska in which military and civilian agencies respond to multiple simulated terrorist incidents. Hurrex ran from April 30 to May 10 and was a command post exercise simulating three hurricanes striking the New England states. Vigilant Guard started May 7 and will run through May 18.
NORTHCOM Commander Air Force Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr. said lessons learned from the exercise will benefit the entire country in establishing how his command will respond to disasters.
(Fred W. Baker III writes for the American Forces Press Service.)