MUSKOGEE, Okla. - Members of the Texas National Guard's Joint Task Force 136 (Maneuver Enhancement Brigade) were recently recertified by evaluators to continue in their role as the Homeland Response Force for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Region VI, which includes Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas and Louisiana.
The Homeland Response Force would respond to any large scale natural or manmade disaster situation in support of local, state and federal first responders.
More than 800 members of the joint task force trained at Camp Gruber, Okla., in a weeklong external evaluation testing their emergency response capabilities, interagency cooperation, and asset management in prolonged periods of operation.
The exercise, certified by the Joint Interagency Training and Education Center, included a series of mass casualty scenarios stressing the brigade's personnel in real-time simulations.
"The (evaluation) is an attempt and a time for us to actually test the experiences in what these guys have been training on all year," said Army Maj. Gen. Len Smith, commander of the Texas Army National Guard. "As the evaluation part of it goes, it's a great opportunity for them to figure out what they do and don't know."
The certification authorizes JTF-136 (MEB), also known as the Minuteman Brigade, to respond in support of civil authorities anywhere within FEMA Region VI. As an asset of the Texas National Guard, the brigade would be activated by the governor of Texas to directly support the response efforts of civilian first responders like police, firefighters and emergency medical services personnel.
"It's a great exercise," said Army Maj. Gen. Myles L. Deering, adjutant general for the Oklahoma National Guard. "It gives these Soldiers and Airmen out here an opportunity to test their skills, their prowess, to gain confidence and gain understanding of the types of missions they need to do. It gives them an opportunity to work with the first responder community who they answer to in an incident like this."
The simulated incidents included train derailments, hazardous materials explosions, and contamination of populated areas. Guardmembers specializing in search and extraction techniques, decontamination procedures and medical triage engaged their scenarios with the just as they would a real-life emergency. More than 40 tasks with hundreds of performance checkpoints comprised the overall evaluation, tracking the unit on everything from shift changes and security to interagency communication and media engagement.
"It's something I've never seen in my 18 years on active duty," said Army Lt. Col. John Crawson, chief of staff for the Minuteman Brigade. "It's quite a mission. I look at our own city of Austin as a great example. We've got a major highway [with] a major metropolitan area running right down the western side of the city with a train track running through the middle of it and tanker cars that go up and down that track all day and all night long. So the possibility of a derailment of a train... in west Austin is something that's very real and very close to home."
The challenges of the scenarios were enhanced by the week's unusually frigid temperatures, reaching as low as single digits during the training period. Guardmembers accustomed to warmer Texas environments saw several days of snow, sleet, and ice in addition to the training scenarios.
"Even though we've had bad weather, these guys are doing a fantastic job," said Army Col. Patrick Hamilton, the domestic operations commander for the Texas National Guard. "The Soldiers are motivated; the Airmen are motivated. The support from Camp Gruber is fantastic."
Ultimately, it was the brigade's preparedness that enabled them to succeed in spite of weather difficulties. The Minuteman Brigade conducted four full-scale training scenarios in 2013, two of which took place at Camp Gruber, to rehearse and perfect their response plan in anticipation for this evaluation.
"One of the things that has made (the brigade) successful coming into this exercise is that they have put together a very solid road to (their evaluation) training plan and they've executed that training plan very well," said Lt. Col. Scott Nelson, exercise director for the external evaluation. "They've really set themselves up for success."
This is the joint task force's second experience conducting an external evaluation for HRF validation, with the first in October 2011.
"This is our second time through and we're taking care of the basic tasks that we did the last time which they're evaluated on," said Hamilton. "But this time, we've expanded this so that our joint force headquarters and the [joint operations center] back in Texas is involved in the play like it would be normally in a real event, and that's a big take-away."
The Homeland Response Force mission is one of great importance, said those involved with the exercise and evaluation.
"It's a very important mission to the state and the nation," said Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Brandt, the senior enlisted adviser of the Texas National Guard. "The (evaluation) is just to make sure that these guys and gals know what they're doing, that they can perform the duties that they're supposed to be doing in case of a real-world scenario."
The Guardmembers demonstrated their readiness by achieving top marks in operational assessment and rapid decision-making, validating the Minuteman Brigade for another three years of regional support in the event of disaster.
"It feels great," said Army Sgt. Joshua Hill, an assistant team leader with the 236th Military Police Company. "I hope we get to keep it, I absolutely love doing the HRF mission. It's not something that every unit gets to do. It's something that I and lot of other Soldiers here enjoy, so we'll just try to keep it as long as we can."