BUTLERVILLE, Ind. – On Monday, April 24, at approximately 10 a.m., a notional, 10-kiloton nuclear dirty bomb was set off in Weehawken, New Jersey. On Tuesday night, at close to midnight, the first military responders were lined up at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in southern Indiana, which represents the outskirts of the bomb blast radius, in order to look for victims and survivors.
The exercise hasn’t slowed down since.
Guardian Response 17 is a multicomponent, training exercise in coordination with Army North’s Vibrant Response exercise to validate the military’s ability to support civil authorities in the event of a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear catastrophe. The exercise is being held at the Indiana National Guard’s one-of-a-kind facility by the Army Reserve’s 84th Training Command, commanded by Maj. Gen. Scottie D. Carpenter, who sees historical precedence for this kind of training.
“I was in the [North Carolina] state bureau of investigations and we worked with the civil authorities on disasters and critical events,” Carpenter remembers. “What was determined a long time ago is that when you bring large groups of people together, they can’t communicate because they don’t have the same communications systems.”
For instance, according to Carpenter, when you ask for a “unit,” that simple word means many different things to many different agencies. For first responders, it could be a rescue squad unit. For the police department, it is a single police car. For paramedics, it is a unit of blood. These are the kinds of communication problems that Guardian Response 17 is meant to sort out.
In the event of a natural or man-made disaster in the homeland, the local authorities are in charge and the military is there to provide manning, equipment, and the skill sets that are needed in a time of national crisis. It’s a matter of having the right resource at the right place at the right time.
“Guardian Response brings together all of those entities,” Carpenter said. “FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], federal agencies, active component, Guard and Reserve forces, to support the civil authorities. When you’re sustaining an operation like that, it takes a great amount of manpower and coordination.”
Before the Bomb
In order to make Guardian Response 17 the most realistic-looking event possible, the soldiers and employees of Muscatatuck Urban Training Center spend months mapping out and deploying debris and discarded clothing around the facility.
Maj. Stephen Spencer, MUTC executive officer, said that it’s a different kind of duty for the soldiers.
“Normally, when you go to a military facility, it’s pristine,” Spencer says. “Here at Muscatatuck, we spend six weeks just making the place look like a disaster.”
Soldiers and employees of Muscatatuck place everything from clothing items to large pieces of destroyed metal to downed trees and crashed cars all over the site. Every piece has a purpose and every item adds to the realism that training troops have to deal with.
The 78th Training Division has been working on the run-up to Guardian Response for more than a year. Brig. Gen. Michael Dillard took command of the 78th only a year ago, so he has lived and breathed this exercise during his entire tenure.
“We spent 12 months preparing for this mission,” Dillard said. “There are no challenges, just opportunities. The opportunity to work with the active component, the Army Reserve, the National Guard and our civilian partners has been fabulous.”
Dillard said that the 78th Training Division sets the conditions on the ground so that the commander can effectively use full-spectrum operations to train their units. In this case, the realism of the venue creates learning opportunities for all involved.
The Realism of Training
The Guardian Response 17 exercise uses the fictional, nuclear detonation in order to stress CBRN troops to their breaking point. During the exercise, more than 200 role players and 100 mannequins are made to look like victims of a disaster using Hollywood make-up techniques. The 311th Quartermaster Company, Mortuary Affairs, from Puerto Rico is brought in just to make victims look as realistic as possible.
Military engineers must search rubble, fallen buildings, a collapsed parking garage and even a derailed train on a destroyed train trestle. The engineers search to rescue mock victims and get them to medical help as quickly as possible.
Role players are hired from the local area and, according to North Vernon resident Shawn Neal, they are having the time of their lives. Along with his brother Derek, Neal stands in a line of “victims” representing the walking wounded who must be decontaminated and looked at for medical issues by the responding CBRN soldiers and airmen.
“This is fun,” Neal said. “I like it so much, I want to come back.”
Day and night, smoke covers the southern Indiana facility as fire effects create an eerie atmosphere. Responders must navigate their way to enough open space to set up their equipment while ensuring that they, themselves, do not get contaminated.
Lt. Col. John Pitt, Muscatatuck Urban Training Center commander, said he is proud his one-of-a-kind facility to play its part in creating the realistic training environment, and he wants the center to keep helping this important training for years to come.
“The true value of Guardian Response is that it's much better to practice and improve response coordination,” Pitt said. “Practice that saves lives, eases suffering, and provides assistance that helps return citizens' lives to normalcy now … than to have to learn those hard lessons after a real emergency happens.”
Guardian Response 17 is continuing through Wednesday, May 10, and uses the Jennings County Fairgrounds as well as Contingency Operations Base Panther at the Jennings County Airport to help house the more than 6,000 participants in the exercise.