SUFFIELD, Canada -- The terror alert level created by Department of Homeland Security has fluctuated several times since the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. In December 2003, the United States raised the security level to an "orange alert" indicating that terrorists may again be planning to attack the homeland. As recently as Sept. 19, 2006, the terror alert level was yellow, which according to DHS, indicates a significant risk of terror attacks.
What has also remained significant is the level of commitment of Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, II Marine Expeditionary Force, in responding to such attacks since the unit first responded to biological warfare attacks on the U.S. Capitol in 2001 and again in 2004.
"The Marines and sailors are 100 percent committed to the mission of saving lives," said Capt. Michael W. Holcomb, commanding officer, Company A, CBIRF. "CBIRF is prepared to respond to unconventional attacks. In this war on terror, our insidious enemy deliberately targets non-combatants. (CBIRF Marines) know it could be their family as well as anyone else who is targeted."
Reaffirming its commitment to saving lives, CBIRF participated in live chemical-warfare agent training at the Counter Terrorism Technology Center, Defense Research and Development Center, located here Sept. 4 through 14.
"It is extremely difficult to simulate the chaos, friction and feeling of being in a contaminated chemical environment," said Holcomb. "DRDC affords the Marines of CBIRF the unique opportunity of working in a complex environment with several types of chemical warfare agents."
The training embodies the "crawl, walk, run" philosophy by beginning with intensive classroom instruction, thereby ensuring Marines and sailors have a thorough refresher in the basics of CWAs before operating in a live contaminated environment, according to Christopher P. Adie, DRDC chemical training officer.
"Our sole purpose is to instill confidence in the first responders and soldiers who must deal with deadly agents such as mustard gas or arsenic," said Adie. "We ensure they have confidence in their protective equipment and consequently can handle these chemicals without fear."
The "crawl" phase was elevated to the "walk" phase as CBIRF personnel studied the properties of CWAs and handled agents such as VX; a nerve agent which according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, may result in a loss of consciousness, convulsions and respiratory failure, possibly leading to death, and is considered the most toxic of the known chemical-warfare agents.
"All I wanted was to be cool, calm and collected," said Sgt. Marvin T. Tibbs, a supply noncommissioned officer with CBIRF's Company B. "Working with the VX agent and learning that one drop could kill three men made me realize I had someone else's life in my hands," said Tibbs, referring to his laboratory partner. "I did not want to fail him by overreacting or being unprofessional."
The "run" phase of the training began within four days of the beginning of the evolution as Marines and sailors moved downrange into the hot zone; the center of a chemically, radiologically or biologically-contaminated environment rife with potentially life-threatening challenges.
"When the situation in the hot zone turned out differently than briefed, the tasks the Marines and sailors were assigned before going downrange went to hell in a hand basket," said Sgt. Kevin D. Mahoney, a crash fire rescue technician assigned to the Technical Rescue Platoon, Headquarters and Service Company, CBIRF. "The Marine mentality kicks in instantly. The Marines and sailors took charge to ensure tasks were reassigned so that the mission of saving the lives of the casualties could be executed quickly and efficiently."
Although speed and accuracy defined the execution of the mission, emphasis on safety in the hot zone proved to be paramount, according to retired Chief Warrant Officer 3 William T. Strang, the commanding officer's advisor on research and development.
"If strict adherence to CBIRF's operational plans are not observed, people could possibly get injured or killed," said Strang. "Working at DRDC is the key time for our command to exercise operational standard operating procedures thereby reinforcing our techniques and identifying shortcomings in our plan of execution."
Knowledge from the initial education Marines and sailors received from DRDC instructors, as well as confidence in the personal protective equipment worn downrange, was fundamental to the success of the "run" phase of the training. One remaining factor took precedence over all others that lent to the successful completion of the mission; leadership, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael G. Branch, the Nuclear Biological Chemical Officer.
"Leadership," said Branch. "There are many definitions of leadership, but I believe it is this: the performance and execution of the mission by your Marines in your absence. When (the designated leaders) are taken out of the fight and your Marines and sailors can carry on at levels as if you were there, your leadership has been what it was supposed to be."
Col. Michael F. Campbell, commanding officer, CBIRF, while recognizing the high caliber of leadership within the ranks of his unit, also acknowledged the tenacity of the adversary.
"(Our commitment) absolutely does not stop here with the Marines and sailors who attended DRDC this year because the bad guys are not going to wait for the opportunity to attack," said Campbell. "I believe in this training as a culmination of every new join's first year of duty at CBIRF; this is where I want to bring them."
Ultimately it was the vast Canadian landscape, with its distant horizon, on which the unit conducted the training that spoke to the future of CBIRF and the country it has sworn to protect.
"You do not know what is beyond the horizon until you get there," said Cpl. Britni E. Scott, a Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Defense specialist with CBIRF. "The unknown is always a little frightening, but regardless of these factors (the Marines and sailors of CBIRF) have to be prepared for every facet of warfare."