LANDOVER, MD -- A stark question followed the March 20, 1995 terrorist sarin gas attack on citizens of Tokyo. Was this a one-time attack or a future threat? The answer would fall definitively upon the conscious of a post 9-11 world where an invisible enemy, using inhalation anthrax, would attack the Capitol of the United States. Even as the United States and its allies struggle to answer the question of whether they possess the will to fight a war of attrition with a thinking enemy in Iraq, a new question moves slowly to the foreground of the war on terror.
Are we prepared to fight an unseen enemy here at home?
Marines and Sailors of the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, located in Indian Head, Md., remain poised to answer that question 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Recently the unit christened the newly completed Landover Metro Training Facility. The training detachment of more than 100 Marines and Sailors utilized the full spectrum of their capabilities, preparing to fight an unseen enemy. As they arrived at the scene of a simulated weapons of mass destruction attack on the metro subway system, the singular challenge of fighting an unseen enemy proved to be not unlike the Hydra that Hercules fought in Greek mythology; as one head of the many-headed serpent is cut off, it is replaced by two others.
Through the eyes of Capt. Roy M. Draa, response force commander, B Company, the WMD site that is filled with the chaos of partially destroyed subway cars, secondary improvised explosive devices and chemical death is translated decisively into layer upon layer of questions which must be answered. Recent terrorist attacks on London's transit system presented a similar list of demands.
"The most important thing upon arriving on scene is to ask what are the hazards, and what types of injuries have the casualties sustained from the attack and immediately following," said Draa. "It must then be answered how will we avoid or mitigate the hazards, and how can we overcome them in a short amount of time."
More intangible concerns arise as the Marines and Sailors execute their life-saving mission, said Draa. CBIRF's military personnel, like their counterparts serving in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, are challenged with life and death decisions.
"There are situations where Marines and Sailors have to make decisions on the objective as a whole as opposed to each individual obstacle they encounter," explained Draa. "It is a hard decision, but we have to rescue the victims that have a significant chance of survival. For example our medical personnel train to make life and death decisions in the middle of the chaos inherent in a WMD environment."
There are some things that must be put aside, explained Draa.
"Our Marines and Sailors cannot get caught up in emotions while they are executing the rescue mission which defines the reason for CBIRF's existence," Draa said. "The law enforcement agencies we work side-by-side with cannot have what is essentially a crime scene compromised by people reacting to their emotions. We train in scenarios like this so that we can become more prepared to leave the non-viable casualties behing. Consequently the law enforcement agencies on scene can conduct a more successful investigation."
As petty officer third class Joshua Dehave surveyed the incident site, his thoughts echoed the overwhelming power of the unknown.
"There is a lot of stress thinking about the different types of injuries you will come up against," said the 25-year-old corpsman. "The worst injuries are the arterial bleeding or head injuries which would most likely occur in a WMD scenario. To deal with the stress, you have to focus on remembering where your bandages are or where an IV is so you can use it the moment you need it. Then you must focus on the most severe injuries and not necessarily treat the first injury you see."
Even when the unknown becomes the known, the distance between one person's eyes and another's may be infinite, explains the native of Martinsburg, W.V.
"Every patient you come across is going to want you to treat them, but you might have to make the decision that someone else needs treatment first," said Dehaven. "Then you must look (the patient)in the eyes and tell them you will come back."
An hour passes by, and what was once chaos slowly becomes "organized" according to 1st Sgt. Brian Taylor, B Co., first sergeant.
"To understand the operation as a whole, you must think of it as organized chaos," said Taylor. "What this means is that there is so much going on that it looks chaotic but in all reality the Marines and Sailors within the chaos fully understand their jobs and how to make this work with the other Marines and Sailors within the crisis area."
Cpl. Ivan Trevino, a technical rescue Marine with B Company, keeps the CBIRF motto, "to close with and save life," at the forefront of his mind when operating downrange in the contaminated environment, surrounded by the chaos during the evolution.
"Along with saving the lives of the casualties, we must also think about the Marines and Sailors who are working to save those casualties," said the 22-year old veteran. "In situations like this the core nature of a Marine is to be a hard-charger. Sometimes because of this mentality, the line between saving lives and walking unnecessarily into danger becomes quite thin. This is where the technical rescue platoon comes in and makes an unsafe situation safe."
Trevino pushed aside his physical exhaustion and allowed his mind to take control of the situation.
"I try to think a few steps ahead," the Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran said. "I took note of the tilted Metro car and I began thinking about what angles of shoring we would use to stabilize the car, thereby making it safe to conduct the rescue mission. Then I decide from the vast library of equipment we use what is most appropriate to use, when and where to use it."
Ultimately Marines can fall back on the power of muscle.
"Moving the patients with the train at a 45-degree angle presented the greatest challenge," said Trevino. "When the angle threw us off, we just muscled it and leaned as we walked. We got tired quickly doing this, but you just push this aside and continue with the mission."
"The way I see it, the rescue mission will eventually be over and that is when we will rest,"
Trevino continued matter-of-factly.
Using the new facility enabled the rescue, medical and decontamination crew to be in a public transportation model similar to those in which the attacks took place in Tokyo and London.
According to Fred Goodine, Metro's Assistant General Manager for Safety and Risk Protection, "Metro is the first transit agency in the United States to construct a permanent rail training facility for emergency response personnel. This new safety training facility was designed specifically to train police, fire and rescue personnel on subway emergencies."
The state-of-the-art safety training tunnel is 260 feet long and contains two old Metrorail cars positioned to resemble a wreck. An electrified third rail is simulated, as well as the cabling and lighting that are in a real Metro tunnel.
Draa embraced the unique nature of the facility; "It was a huge benefit coming to a place the Marines have not seen before. The different problems force the Marines and Sailors to think on their feet."
"This is the great thing about the Marine Corps," Draa declared. "Marines will adapt to the environment and overcome any obstacle as they did so well here today."