'Hot Zone' Draws Volunteers
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
MOUNT STERLING, Ohio, April 17, 2002 Entering a contaminated "hot zone" is deadly business, as Army Maj. David Seitz and his team of 21 Ohio Army and Air National Guardsmen are well aware.
Two years ago, Seitz and his team volunteered to join the 52nd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team. Since then, they've studied, trained, drilled, practiced and studied some more as they prepared to work in environments potentially contaminated with chemicals or biological agents.
Army Staff Sgt. Raymond Davis, a survey team leader with the 52nd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, explains the team's self-
contained breathing apparatus to Ohio emergency management officials. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Today, they know their mission inside and out. Like a precision drill team, they set up and tear down their unified command suite, dismounted analytical platform and other high-tech equipment. Instead of M-16 rifles, these troops wield gamma spectrometers, chemical and biological detectors and monitors, self-contained breathers, and decontamination systems.
"These are the highest caliber soldiers and airmen I've ever worked around," said Seitz, deputy team commander. "They're dedicated and they take this job very seriously. If people on this team know there's a task that needs to be done, they go straight at it. They're proud of the mission that might be imposed upon us, depending upon what happens in the world."
The unit is one of 32 civil support teams set up by presidential directive in the mid-1990s to support civil authorities in the event of domestic chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high explosive incidents. Their tasks are to identify agents or substances, assess current and projected consequences, advise local authorities on response measures, and help with requests for state support.
Seitz said the Ohio team has made a concerted effort to introduce itself to first responders throughout the state. As a result, he said, state officials now welcome the 52nd with open arms.
"We have a discreet military signature," he said. "We don't drive camouflaged Humvees or other military vehicles. We drive dark blue Suburbans, pickup trucks and vans. Arriving at the scene, we look more like 'Men in Black' than the Army."
"A lot of times in the movies, the military is portrayed as coming in and taking over," Seitz noted. "We're not trying to step on anybody's toes or take their mission away. Our job is to report to the incident commander -- that's the person in charge of that emergency scene, typically the fire chief. We explain what our assets are and what we can do to help, and from there, it's up to the incident commander to employ us or not."
The only support services the team needs from the local community, he said, are site and perimeter security, emergency medical services, and water and toilet facilities. "We try to have the least impact we can. The incident commander doesn't need us as another burden. He needs to mitigate that incident."
The director of Ohio's Emergency Management Agency vouches for the team's value and professionalism. "The civil support team gives us a core of highly trained and well- equipped folks that can respond quickly to any major incident," Dale Shipley said. "They can get anywhere in the state probably within three and a half hours, and most of the heavily populated areas of the state in much less than that."
The team represents "a great first step in having that capability in our local communities," Shipley noted. "It's something that we will want to try to replicate in the major population centers, at least, so that there are these capabilities in local fire and police departments. (The civil support team) would be a great backup at that point . Right now, this is it and we're certainly thankful to have it."
Denny Tomcik, deputy operations officer for the Ohio Emergency Management Agency echoed Shipley's appreciation. During the anthrax threat after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, Tomcik said, state officials called out the civil support team for a real mission. The 52nd deployed to Allen County, where local authorities were irradiating mail that had come in from Washington, D.C.
"The trucks from Washington were supposed to be packed a certain way," Tomcik recalled. "When they opened the first truck, the baggage was thrown around and there were torn containers. We shut it back up and called the team in. They came in, did their tests and got things back in order immediately. They did an incredibly professional job. We were very happy to have them."
Some people relish a challenge. Others love to learn. Still others want to serve their country. The 52nd team members might say "all of the above" when asked why they volunteered.
Seitz, who served four years in the Coast Guard before joining the National Guard in 1982, was a fulltime firefighter for five years before he joined the team. The deputy commander said he had "a lot of hazardous material background and knew the talk of the first-responder community. I saw the emergency management realm developing, and I really liked the idea of learning about the big picture for emergency response."
Army Capt. Frank Stratman, who serves as the team's assistant operations officer, was living in Gillette, Wyo., when he responded to a nationwide National Guard announcement for the team. "I was working as an operating room nurse when this came up," he said. "I'd been reading about it and I felt that with my background, I could contribute."
Stratman transferred from the Wyoming National Guard to the Ohio unit and has no regrets that he did. "Every aspect of this is challenging -- what we train for and being on a self-supporting team of 22 people," he said.
Army Sgt. Tim Stichler of Mansfield, Ohio, a six-year Army National Guard veteran, applied for a full-time position with the team after he'd left his job as a chef. Despite being on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week and constantly training, Stichler loves the work. "I love being in the military. I don't think I'd do anything else," he said.
"It sounded interesting and challenging," said Army Staff Sgt. Raymond Davis of Columbus, Ohio, who spent four years on active duty and another seven in the National Guard, before volunteering for the team. "Now I realize just how challenging it is. Seeing how the world is today with the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, it makes me happy that I'm doing my part for my country."
Air Force Capt. Mike Stogsdill of Spencer, Ind., is the team's physicians assistant. After 14 years on active duty, he switched to the Air National Guard to join the team. "I spent five years as an EMT paramedic before I joined the military," Stogsdill said. "As a volunteer fireman, hazmat was very interesting to me. This puts me back in this same field."
With 12 years' active duty under his belt, Army Capt. Ken Napier of Louisville, Ky., transferred to the Ohio Army National Guard to join the team. "I've been a chemical officer my entire career," he said. "In the Army, it's still tactical. I wanted to do something with a different swing to it, and this gives me the opportunity to do that. This is cutting-edge stuff."
Napier noted that the unit's operations tempo is as great, if not greater, than a lot of the tactical units he's been in. The captain said he's concerned his highly trained team members would be lured away by civilian companies. He said defense officials are considering making team members eligible for hazardous duty pay, and that would go a long way toward helping retention.
Hazardous duty pay or not, Army Staff Sgt. Douglas Gumm plans to stay with the unit until he retires. Before he joined the team, he served in the Marine Corps for 12 years and as a police officer for five.
"I was kind of a fool to get out of the military when I got out the first time," Gumm remarked. "I'm going to stick this out. It's actually kind of fun. You learn a lot of different things. There's a lot of technical work -- a lot of book smarts. You have to keep up on it and it's a constant study. There's no slacking. You have to keep up with it or you'll fall behind."
From the start, Gumm said, the unit has had a sense of urgency about its mission. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks "kicked it up into high gear," he said. The attacks took the guesswork out of imagining the unimaginable, he added.
Air Force 2nd Lt. Laurie Smith of Delta, Ohio, team medical operations officer, has served a total of 14 years' active duty with the Air Force and the Air National Guard. She said Sept. 11 "was a big wakeup call for all of us."
"A lot of people think, 'This isn't going to happen to us.' But in our training, they always said, 'It's not 'if' it's ever going to happen, it's 'when.' On Sept. 11, we saw that it actually does happen and we actually have to be prepared. It made our job crystal clear. We could see exactly what's happening and how valuable a resource we really are. We are the military's first responders."
The attack had a big impact on the team, Seitz noted. "I was in Washington with two of my teammates on Sept. 11 attending computer training. We were about three miles south of the Pentagon when the attacks hit. We got ordered back to our unit immediately. We ran back to the hotel to pack and from the room you could see the Pentagon on fire. That was very sobering."
Back in Ohio, Seitz said, the team stayed busy on high alert for quite a few days. The attack gave everyone on the team an even stronger sense of purpose, he said.
"You could tell the way it affected everybody. It really made them focused. This is one of those jobs where you don't want to ever get called, but when you do, you're well-trained and you want to be able to use that training to contribute something."