News: Vigilant Guard - Volunteer radio operators bridge the communication gap during crises
By Spc. William E. Henry
B Company, Special Troops Battalion, 38th Infantry Division, Indiana Army National Guard
CAMP ATTERBURY, Ind. — Swiftly unloading improvised antennas and equipment from trucks and vans in the midday humidity, a small group of radio operators erected and connected their communications equipment quickly and efficiently.
The operators, part of the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS), were preparing to participate in Vigilant Guard, a joint civilian and military exercise simulating the detonation of an improvised nuclear device in a major metropolitan area.
For more than 80 years, the group has been providing the Department of Defense with auxiliary communications on a local, national and international basis as well as normal communications between civilians.
"All the equipment we have is purchased by each of us," said Jeff Hammer, an emergency management officer for MARS. "We get no reimbursement for any of our equipment. It's strictly volunteer work."
After setting up, they dial in specific channels for high-frequency single-sideband voice and even slow-scan television networks for direct communications with military and civilian personnel. Checking and double checking, they soon establish communication links.
"MARS is unique in what they do," said Jim Finchum, a MARS communications technician. "No one else does the things that MARS does. We can even process slow-feed video with just using VHF signals."
"I get to do what I love and it's for the benefit of the country. I just want to give back to the country that has given me so much," said Jim Mannix, a MARS communications technician
"MARS' main focus in this exercise is to provide support to the military and connect the lines of communication where ever they are needed," Hammer said.
In 1925, the Army Amateur Radio System was formed by pioneers in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and continued until the start of World War II when operations were temporarily suspended. They resumed in 1948 when the Army and Air Force established MARS.
"Public relations are important because one of MARS' missions is to find people to help us," Hammer said.
MARS depends on people like the media to help spread the word about what they do and how they can get involved, he added.
Those interested in contributing to the MARS mission must be at least 14 years old, a U.S. citizen or resident alien, possess a valid amateur radio license and have a home or portable station capable of operating MARS band frequencies.
For more information visit the MARS website at www.ares.org/groups/mars.