MUSCATATUCK URBAN TRAINING CENTER, Ind. – Fields of debris, demolished vehicles and bodies of mannequins and live role players laid across an entire town center; words on bed sheets, asking for assistance, hung over the roofs of buildings; and street poles laid fallen, while buildings were covered in plumes of smoke, and homes were submerged in a body of water.
The scene was not the set of Hollywood's next apocalyptic blockbuster film, but it was what U.S. Army Reserve, Army National Guard and active component Soldiers drove into at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center for the U.S. Army Reserve's Guardian Response 18 exercise, April 2 - 28, 2018.
"This is a Defense Support to Civil Authorities exercise and it's to validate and ensure the readiness of our response force for a catastrophic event," said U.S. Army Reserve Col. Chris M. Briand, Chief of Staff, 78th Training Division and chief of operations for Guardian Response 18. "It is a (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear)-response enterprise which is comprised of three different elements across the active duty, the U.S. Army Reserve and the National Guard."
More than 4,500 service members from 80 units across the nation participated in the U.S. Army Forces Command-directed evaluation/capstone training event. In addition to all Army components participating in the exercise, elements from the U.S. Air Force as well as state and federal agencies, and local emergency response forces were involved.
"It really is about readiness in our forces and having the proper capability to respond to a catastrophic event anywhere in the homeland," said Briand. "And also to be able to develop those partnerships with the local communities and interagency (partners), and to be able to come and save lives, prevent human suffering and mitigate extensive property damage, which are the three tenets of the (DSCA)."
The U.S. Army Reserve's 84th Training Command and 78th Training Division planned, and coordinated as the execution control headquarters for Guardian Response 18.
"If you look at other exercises, we're usually preparing our capability and our readiness for the warrior abroad," said Briand. "But with this exercise, we're really talking about protecting the homeland and being ready and capable to respond to America's next worst day."
Briand further shared that readiness, partnerships and capabilities were some of the key focus areas for this exercise, and that the military's role was strictly a support role and that they would not be in charge of incidents in a real-world disaster.
"We (the Army) or Soldiers who respond to an event are not in charge," said Briand. "It's the state incident commander who is in charge. We are supporting here, but we in the exercise replicate the incident commander, the defense-coordinating officer, and all those state and federal agencies that assist in this response. We are playing those roles here."
The validation exercise sets realistic training for first responders through a notional 10-kiloton nuclear detonation scenario in a major city of the United States. The training audience brings a range of life-saving capabilities such as medical response, decontamination, technical rescue, patient evacuation, communications and logistics support to move people, equipment and supplies by land and air. The overall scenario developed for the training exercise was service members responding to an incident in support of civil authorities, several days after the incident occurred.
Guardian Response 18 produced a variety of events for Soldiers to include trench rescues, urban search and rescue operations, vehicle and subway extrications, and a mass casualty decontamination line, to name a few, while all in a contaminated CBRN environment. Maj. Gen. Ray Royalty, commanding general of the 84th Training Command, and exercise director for Guardian Response 18, toured the grounds at MUTC before the training audience arrived and met with the various planners and support staff for the exercise.
"The biggest take away (at Guardian Response 18) is the training, the dialogue and the understanding of the expectations of something like this really happening," said Royalty.
Once training units arrived on the ground, they established their work sites and sent out CBRN teams to check for radiation and decontamination levels ahead of deploying technical rescue teams to the impacted area.
U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Ian Kurtinitis, a firefighter with the 468th Engineer Detachment, based out of Danvers, Massachusetts, was a part of the training audience at Guardian Response 18, and conducted rescue missions in conjunction with the CBRN mass casualty decontamination line.
"Our specific mission is urban search and rescue and specifically, today, to search and rescue a contaminated environment," said Kurtinitis. "There's a subway station that we're working at and there are people trapped inside. Our mission is to gain access, extract patients and to assist anyone that is ambulatory and to extricate those who are non-ambulatory. But, we are coming into this (scenario) as we're assisting overwhelmed local entities who have been at this for several days."
Kurtinitis further shared that a unique skill of their training is the capability of performing technical rescue operations while in CBRN environment protective gear. He added that although civilian entities are trained in the same technical disciplines and Hazardous Materials teams, typically, civilian partners do not perform technical skill rescue operations while in CBRN protective gear.
"We're firefighters. Our (Military Occupational Specialty) is 12 Bravo, a firefighting unit, so a lot of these skills fall under our skill set, and this builds on it," said Kurtinitis. "We're still executing our job, but we're doing it at a much more technical and advanced level, so the upside is that you have people that want to be here, people that want to do the job, people that want to help others, so even in training, they approach it as a real-world event."
"There's never an issue with motivation or discipline. When (Soldiers) are out here working, they're 100 percent of the time going to execute the job that they're here to do," said Kurtinitis. "In an event like this, the added feature is that they have (live) role-players, so (Soldiers) get the exposure to patient packaging with a real person. You have to take care of that person because it's a real person that you're bringing out."
Once victims were rescued, they were transported or directed to the mass casualty decontamination line for triage, treatment and then transport to the closest medical facility.
"We sort them into groups to see who needs to go through first," said Spc. Christopher Custer, Combat Medic Specialist with the 409th Area Support Medical Company, based out of Madison, Wisconsin, who was receiving patients after they exited the decontamination tent in the MCD line. "I basically re-sort them to make sure that they're going to the right place for the right amount of treatment. After they are (decontaminated), they come to me and I re-direct them."
U.S. Army Reserve Spc. David Forcier, assigned to the 468th Engineer Detachment, was working on a team for urban search and rescue at a vehicle extrication site.
"There's been an event and we're here to rescue the victims from inside of the vehicles," said Forcier. "(The training) is absolutely phenomenal (in regards to) the amount of work that they are doing, and the rotations (that everyone is on). Everyone's doing a really good job at making sure that we're taking care of each other, and also taking care of the victims. (There is) a lot of good triage for the victims and making sure that the medical team is waiting for them, so when we extricate those victims, they are well taken care of and we're working really hard to make sure that every victim gets out in the least amount of time."
Training scenarios primarily were focused on search and rescue operations, decontamination and medical support capabilities, but units were also tested on events such as an outbreak of protests from displaced civilian role-players at their facility gates, to test their reaction.
"When I approached, everyone seemed mad and slammed on the gate," said Pfc. Miguel Sanchez, with the 555th Transportation Detachment. "We tried to work with them and tried to work with their leader, but they were incompliant and said that they didn't have a leader. But you have to do the best that you can and calm them down as much as you can - afterwards, the commander arrived."
"I think it's great," said Brig. Gen. Michael Dillard, commanding general of the 78th Training Division, and deputy exercise director for Guardian Response 18. "This is all about protecting the homeland. I think it's an excellent exercise for our Soldiers to understand what's important and how to work with the civilian authorities. Also, to collaborate and communicate with the civilian authorities, as it would occur, and what they would do if we were to be involved in an incident of this magnitude."