INDIAN HEAD, Md., Jan. 7, 2009 --
Standing before a muddy, mangled mess of concrete, metal and wood, a squad of combat-hardened Marines hastily planned the attack, their target waiting somewhere deep in the debris.
Within minutes, the leader barked his orders and the squad struck.
But this was not a fight typical of those the Marines had seen in their multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. Not a single shot was fired. Time was their enemy, and the mission was to save a life, not take one.
The Marines, assigned to the Chemical, Biological Incident Response Force here, approached their final training obstacle Dec. 18, 2008, during a three-week course required of everyone assigned to the highly specialized unit tasked by the Defense Department with responding to disasters that require federal assistance.
The squad’s weapons were replaced with metal pry bars, Kevlar helmets with construction hard-hats, and combat uniforms with coveralls. The mock disaster scenario involved a building collapse, and the teams were looking to find and extract survivors.
Marine Cpl. Jeramia Jones, a two-time Iraq combat veteran, led the squad’s efforts.
“It felt like I was squad leader again in the infantry, except without the shooting,” he said of the exercise. Jones volunteered for the duty, and for him, the change in mission is eye-opening.
“I’ve never really got to save lives. It’s never been in my job description. Now I get to,” he said. “It’s kind of neat seeing a different side.”
Despite the fact that they no longer kick down doors and give chase to the enemy, the Marines embrace the change in mission and tackle it with equal effort, the unit’s top officer said.
“You can give the Marine Corps any kind of mission … and they’re going to put their shoulders to the wheel and give it 110 percent,” Marine Col. John M. Pollock, who commands the unit, said during a Jan. 5, 2009, interview. “I don’t care if it’s clearing ridge tops in Afghanistan or the city of Fallujah, or pulling victims out of a hot zone. It’s just kind of the people they are. Regardless of what that challenge is, they are going to give it their best effort.”
In the early 1990s, senior military officials began facing the growing threat of terrorists using chemical and biological weapons to attack the United States. In 1995, then-President Bill Clinton signed a directive declaring that the United States would give the highest priority to developing capabilities to manage the consequences of nuclear, biological or chemical materials or weapons used by terrorists.
The commandant of the Marine Corps set in place the guidelines for designing a highly trained and specialized unit designed to respond to such a threat in the event that state and local authorities need Defense Department assistance.
A year later, the CBIRF was born with its primary mission of decontaminating and removing casualties from a disaster site. It first was based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and later moved to the Naval Support Facility here.
The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force led the operational efforts of the unit until October 2008 when, in a historic move, the U.S. Northern Command pulled into its ranks nearly 5,000 active-duty forces designated to respond to homeland emergencies.
Now, the CBIRF is associated administratively with the 2nd MEF, but can tap into the extensive medical, aviation, transportation and logistical support of the other units within Northcom’s response force.
The unit is designed to help state and local first responders, and would be deployed only when requested by those agencies through the Defense Department, Pollock said.
More than 400 Marines, sailors and civilians are assigned to the unit, with Marines making up its majority. Navy corpsmen provide medical expertise and support, serving side by side with the Marines just as they do in combat.
The unit has specialists in bomb disposal, technical rescue decontamination, chemical identification and detection, medical and casualty extraction. It also has a security force, but Pollock said he would rather use state and local law enforcement for security. The unit does not use weapons in its specialized rescue training.
“Security for our forces operating within the homeland is a law-enforcement issue, and I would much rather leverage local and state law enforcement to provide that security,” Pollock said. “It gets in the way of my primary mission, which is to get into a hot zone and to save lives.”
Two response forces are at the ready, Pollock said, but the strength of the unit lies in its ability to tailor the force to the mission’s needs.
“If it needs to be smaller, we can make it smaller. If it needs to be bigger, we can make it bigger,” Pollock said. “We do have a standard construct for a [response force], but that’s really just a point of departure as we go into mission analysis and as we task organize and try to ‘right-size’ that force.”
While the unit is a reactive force, it takes on a proactive posture. It regularly pre-positions its assets at national-security-level events. For example, a unit was in place for the Republican National Convention in Minnesota over the summer, Pollock said.
“That’s probably the type of operation that we’re best postured to execute against,” Pollock said. “We are already in the incident area, and we can rapidly respond … to get to an incident site.”
The unit also regularly trains around the country with its state, local and National Guard counterparts. This helps to establish and maintain relationships with the units so that, in the event the CBIRF is requested, it can more quickly move into it support role.
“One of the things that we think is important is to maintain those contacts, maintain those networks with both local first responders and also with our National Guard counterparts,” Pollock said. “Because when the balloon goes up, that’s not the time to just be learning these guys’ names. We really should have already established a relationship before that happens.”
The unit annually travels to Canada’s Defense Research and Development Center in Alberta for live chemical and biological agent training.
Unit leaders also call on civilian experts to help train the unit.
Experts from the New York City Fire Department travel here to train the unit members on responding to structural collapses, said Patrick Higgins, the lead weapons of mass destruction instructor at the unit. The Los Angeles City Fire Department sends experts from its college of search and rescue to teach specialized rescue efforts.
Higgins is a retired Marine master sergeant and former member of the unit. He has traveled the world as a crash fire rescue specialist and said those serving at the CBIRF are the best in their field.
“The Marines here at CBIRF do their job better than anybody else on the face of the planet,” he said following the exercise.
Higgins credits their success to tenacity, training and youth.
“The Marine Corps is uniquely suited for this mission … because of Marine tenacity. You give a Marine a challenge, and he’s going to get it done no matter what the cost,” he said.
The other five civilian instructors also are former unit members. Higgins said they frequently update training to match evolving threats. But don’t look for high-technology simulators and a lot of gee-whiz gadgets. The training is short on computers and long on dirt.
“There is zero sanitizing in the training that is out here,” Higgins said. “You could look at a computer screen all day long, but until you have to eat the mud and smell the concrete dust, it’s a total different environment. We teach the Marines what they’re going to be faced with.”
This constant training, as in combat, is what keeps the Marines safe during their missions, Pollock said. While there may not be an enemy shooting at the Marines, real dangers lurk in the hazardous conditions of a potentially contaminated disaster site.
“It’s an inherently dangerous business,” Pollock said. “The dangers and the risks are a little different than being deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. But any time you are dealing with a contaminated environment … it’s challenging, and the skills required to operate in that environment are extensive and they’re perishable, and you constantly have to train to the standards.”