BRIDGEPORT, Calif. - Nearly 100 California National Guard troops faced below-freezing temperatures, early morning raids and chemical warfare during a weeklong training mission in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Taking place at three northern California locations, Operation Red Snow called on five California Army and Air National Guard units to work side-by-side with several civilian agencies to uncover and disrupt a fictitious terrorist organization operating right here in the United States.
"We wanted [the Guard members] to gain two things," said Army National Guard 1st Lt. Edward Baon, 95th Civil Support Team medical operations officer and Operation Red Snow exercise director. "One is the Soldier skills they'll be getting in this cold weather environment, actually exercising the skills that they'll need when they go overseas.
"The other thing we can take away from this multiagency exercise [is the chance to] get together, train and actually understand each other. For a lot of people this is the first time working with the infantry or security forces and one of the big takeaways is to actually know who you're working with if there were ever to be an incident like this in California."
For the first couple days of the large-scale exercise, the 95th CST out of Hayward, Calif., investigated a possible Ricin laboratory in the sleepy town of Truckee, Calif., while the 9th CST out of Los Alamitos, Calif., uncovered a meth lab nearly 230 miles south in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. Both events led the teams to the Bridgeport headquarters of the Revolutionary Communist Party, a fictional homegrown terrorist organization hell-bent on using drug-funded, Ricin-laced weapons of mass destruction on the American people.
"What happens in Truckee and Mammoth tie into what happens here at Bridgeport," Baon said. "What we tried to do is establish an exercise on a large scale covering different locations to see what information is received from those locations, how it transpires and how the agencies put together their emergency response teams for this threat."
The two CST teams, tasked with handling CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosive) and Weapons of Mass Destruction, or WMD, situations around the state, worked closely with local fire and police forces, as well as the FBI, testing chemical samples and figuring out where they came from. At the same time the California Air National Guard's 144th and 146th Security Forces Squadrons out of Fresno and Channel Islands, Calif., respectively, were busy setting up their terrorist camp.
"Our part was to play the bad guys in the Red Snow exercise," said Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Jonathan Bass, 146th SFS member. "Pretty much we set up our base camp, set up mock chemical and bomb-making tents, and were just bad guys. It was fun."
Rounding out the exercise, were approximately 30 Soldiers from the California Army National Guard's 1-160th Infantry Battalion's Headquarters and Headquarters Company and Bravo Company. The companies used intelligence from the CST teams and local civilian agencies to conduct reconnaissance, scout and sniper missions designed to take down the RCP at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center northwest of here.
Nestled deep within the snowy Toiyabe National Forest, about 350 miles north of Los Angeles and 200 miles east of Sacramento, the MCWTC provided the National Guard members, many of whom were from southern California, with sweeping mountain views, elevations between 6,400 and 11,000 feet, and plenty of snow.
The 1-160th Inf. Bn., 144th SFS and 146th SFS spent their first few days on the ground following a Marine Corps training plan to become acclimatized to the high elevations and below-freezing temperatures, before beginning 24-hour operations out in the field.
"For the state of California there's been a long, 'Oh, that's a Marine facility, you can't really train there,' or 'It's not easy to access,'" said Army National Guard Maj. Eric Finch, 1-160th Inf. Bn. Executive officer and officer-in-charge for 1-160th's participation in Red Snow.
"But going through this exercise, we've realized how easy and available we can get training here as a National Guard unit if we want to and that's something we obviously can take with us back to the state so other units can come up here and train," Finch said. "The Marine Corps has been very receptive and some of the things we hadn't quite fully planned for, they've been more than happy to help resource us, especially in not planning for cold weather training before. You don't know what you don't know. They've been able to fill in the blanks and they've been very supportive."
The Guard members also got the opportunity to work with and learn from several members of more than 30 different civilian agencies including local and county fire, police and sheriff's departments and the FBI. Working side-by-side in the Incident Command Post, the various agencies and unit representatives got the chance to learn how each component responds, and their functions, capabilities, expectations and resources.
"I think this exercise will go a long way to solidify the working relationship between the FBI and the California National Guard in response to terrorist incidences in the state, and to test our interoperability between [the National Guard's] resources and the resources the FBI can bring to that type of incident," said FBI Special Agent Brian Jones, a SWAT senior team leader.
"The one most important thing is the relationship building between the agencies that you very seldom get an opportunity to work with," Finch added. "When you have to do it for real, you're all thrown together, and you learn a lot when you go through that process, but if you had those relationships built ahead of time, you'd probably help save lives when something actually happens."
Red Snow gave troops the opportunity to work on their individual areas of expertise as well. The 1-160th Inf. Bn. gained proficiency in conducting reconnaissance missions on suspected terrorists groups in a cold weather, mountain environment, something they may someday use in Afghanistan, while the 144th SFS and 146th SFS were able to put their security forces training to work.
"We applied what we know from security forces training to being the terrorists for this exercise," Bass said. "We used a lot of our military education, such as doing patrols, setting up defense fighting positions and standing post."
With only four years in the Guard and two years with the 95th CST, Red Snow was the brainchild of Baon. He spent more than a year designing the complex, large-scale exercise after being tasked by his deputy commander to design an exercise that was "bigger picture" and "outside the box."
"Doing things differently keeps people interested and it works on skills and areas we need to touch up on or challenges us in ways we've never been challenged before," Baon said. "I see a lot of areas where things need improvement and I see a lot of areas where things have worked out great. Everything we're doing here is a learning experience, so I think the next exercise we do will be even bigger and better."
Red Snow offered National Guard troops the unique opportunity to work with agencies and units they never had before, experience cold weather, mountain training and sharpen their unit skills, and more than that, they had a good time doing it.
"I'm looking forward to doing more training like this. It was fun," Bass said. "Good training all around."