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    Always ready, always there; National Guard and civilian authorities conduct disaster relief training

    Always ready, always there; National Guard and civilian authorities conduct disaster relief training

    Photo By Daniel Nelson | Soldiers with the 436th Chemical Company, and the 836th Engineer Company, of the Texas...... read more read more



    Story by Spc. Elijah Morlett 

    145th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

    BRAGGS, Okla. – As the exercise kicked off on Sunday, Sept. 15, a notional violent supercell storm set in motion a series of events that few people could have imagined.

    As the storm passed, first responders rushed to help a ravaged community in northeastern Oklahoma after the storm system produced a tornado that ripped the town apart. Soldiers and Airmen from the state's National Guard were called to action and units soon began arriving at the various locations to offer direct support to civilian emergency crews.

    National Guard units from surrounding states traveled to Oklahoma, bolstering relief and rescue efforts until the site suddenly suffered an explosive setback days later. The survivors of the vicious storm became victims once again after a chemical weapon detonated from within rubble left behind by the winds.

    The new threat alerted the Oklahoma National Guard's 63rd Civil Support Team, a unique unit specializing in weapons of mass destruction. Without delay, the CST deployed to the fictional "Gruber City" to assist civilian authorities with the perceived domestic terrorist attack.

    The storm and attack scenarios at Camp Gruber near Braggs, Okla., were part of many chaotic situations set during Operation Joint Eagle — a weeklong training exercise hosted by the Oklahoma National Guard that attests to one notion many of the participants know to be true: The unexpected can, and will, happen.

    More than 1,000 service members, civilian first responders and role players were involved in Oklahoma's massive endeavor to ensure the National Guard continues to live up to its motto of "Always ready, always there." The various drills took place from Sept. 13-20 and spanned three separate locations: Ponca City, Okla.; Chilocco Indian School near Newkirk, Okla.; and Camp Gruber's "Gruber City."

    Maj. Heather Arndt, exercise coordinator, said training alongside Oklahoma Air and Army National Guard units were several specialized National Guard units from nearby states, including Arkansas' 61st CST, New Mexico's 64th CST and Texas' 6th CST and Homeland Response Force. In addition, the 168th Brigade Support Battalion of the 214th Fires Brigade, an active duty unit from Fort Sill, Okla., participated in the exercise.

    "What we have going on here is an exercise that focuses on the military response to a disaster," Arndt said. "The disaster that we started with is a massive tornado outbreak, so it’s a military response in support of the civilian authorities."

    Military leaders began each scenario by reporting directly to the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) out of Tulsa, Okla., which coordinated civilian law enforcement, fire fighters and medical teams at the sites. Arndt said the National Guard aims to support citizens by providing the necessary personnel and equipment for services such as search and rescue operations and helping law enforcement with crowd control.

    For some high-risk tasks, a military force may be better equipped, such as in the chemical weapon scenario introduced in the second half of Joint Eagle. Arndt said the Texas-based Homeland Response Force is capable of handling chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosive hazards.

    Ten Homeland Response Forces are located throughout the United States, with each one serving a different Federal Emergency Management Agency region. Arndt believes bringing out the specialized teams and conducting disaster rehearsals are necessary to overcome simple obstacles that could become major hurdles, such as understanding terms and acronyms used by the different services.

    "It’s really important that we are able to do these sorts of exercises so that we can practice working with the civilian responders," she said. "When we respond to a natural disaster, we respond in support of the civilian law enforcement, and we need to be able to understand each other and communicate clearly … These are the times when we can really find those disconnects, and we can work that out."

    Capt. Brett Bailey of the Tulsa Police Department led the civilian disaster team. Bailey, who coordinated both military and civilian forces during the drills, said Joint Eagle was "a tremendous opportunity to come [to Camp Gruber] and be able to work together."

    "I was the one that proposed the creation of the [DART] team back in 1999, so I’ve been with the team the entire time," Bailey said. "We’ve participated in different drills and different exercises with the 63rd CST from Oklahoma. But this is our first opportunity to come out and play as a team with something this large, where you have integration from Oklahoma Air Guard, Army Guard, Texas Guard, New Mexico Guard, Arkansas Guard … This is the absolute biggest."

    Bailey said from his standpoint, "getting to know the different players is probably one of the biggest obstacles." Since he primarily works with civilian first responders, he had to quickly learn more about his expanded capabilities and understanding what each unit can offer.

    As they continued working together through the week, he said many of the challenges were overcome, and that he is "very, very confident" about the integration of civilian and military personnel and resources. He believes the amount of support the National Guard can provide is a major benefit to the disaster relief agencies in the area.

    "People think when the Guard comes in, it becomes a National Guard operation," Bailey said. "In a disaster situation, it’s actually a civilian response with the National Guard coming in for support. When they come in, they are working for me as the incident commander. I’ve been absolutely amazed that all the different guard units … Every one of them, without a doubt, comes in and says, 'What can I do for you?’"

    The same sense of confidence is shared by the troops, who have their own set of challenges to work through. Maj. Kurt Stephens, deputy base civil engineer of the 138th Fighter Wing of the Oklahoma Air National Guard, said the integration of units from Air National Guard, Army National Guard, active duty Army and units from different states have brought "a vast array of skillsets" to the table, along with their own various customs and traditions.

    "We're blending very well together," Stephens said. "We’ve all had the same background and same training, just with a little bit of different culture. But as everybody is hitting the ground, we are all under one command and working to one end."

    Unit cohesion became more important as the week went on. Many of Joint Eagle's scenarios built upon each other, adding more stress to an already chaotic situation. In this particular operation, several of the participants brought valuable experience to share with other units. Many Guardsmen and first responders were able to base their actions on the experiences gained while conducting support missions in the aftermath of the massive May 2013 tornado that devastated Moore, Okla.

    "This is optimum training for that type of situation," Stephens said. "This is where we can be free to make mistakes, because once it [a real disaster] hits, we cannot afford to make mistakes. Being out here in an open environment, having the area here at Gruber to work freely allows us to go back and replay stuff. We can go back and look at it to try it again; It’s invaluable."

    Though units may respond more to weather-related calls in Tornado Alley, the exercises regarding domestic threats are taken with the same amount of consideration. Lt. Col. Scott Houck, commander of Oklahoma's 63rd CST, said while he hopes the training scenarios don't end up as realities, his unit is "always ready and always capable" at a moment's notice.

    "My unit is on duty 365 days a year; we’re a full-time unit," Houck said. "We’re mandated to be able to conduct liaison with the incident commander within 90 minutes and then have our main body rolling out of our station within 180 minutes, so we have a very rapid flash-to-bang response time in any situation that’s related to chemical, biological, radiological or high-yield explosive devises."

    Houck has witnessed the type of carnage for which Joint Eagle is preparing responders. His first disaster assignment in the National Guard was in April 1995 on the grounds of the infamous Oklahoma City bombing. The dreadful explosion at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building claimed 168 lives — an event that still remains as the deadliest domestic-based terrorist attack in the United States.

    To ensure the CST is prepared, Houck and his unit conduct small-scale exercises at least once a month, and larger, four-day exercises each quarter. An operation the size of Joint Eagle, however, happens once a year, and Houck said his unit "takes advantage of every second" of the opportunity.

    "The attention to detail and realism of this scenario has been really good," Houck said. "I’ve responded to numerous state active duty missions myself, and the state headquarters has put a lot of attention into making sure every facet of it is as real as possible."

    He said he has seen the National Guard transform significantly throughout his career, making positive changes in how the Soldiers train. From federal deployments to supporting state missions, the dynamic assignments call for dynamic training — and Houck said he hasn't seen "any situation that the National Guard couldn't do what they needed to do when they were called."

    He believes there is a genuine pride amongst he and his Guardsmen with the work they are assigned to do in the National Guard. He said the 22 members of the CST are highly trained individuals that want to help Oklahomans in whatever way they need to, which is the best thing they can provide for the state.

    "We assist local first responders as much as we can and give them the best opportunity for success that we can give them," he said. "It’s truly hard work, and everybody wants to get in and do as much as possible to help people.”

    “The Alfred P. Murrah building, both of the tornados, the opportunity to help the citizens of Oklahoma and people in areas like Louisiana and things like that have probably been some of the proudest things I’ve been part of in my entire life,” Houck said. I’ve been really happy to assist in those situations."



    Date Taken: 09.18.2013
    Date Posted: 09.20.2013 13:44
    Story ID: 113995
    Location: BRAGGS, OK, US 

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