Weve Got the Nerve
By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo., Aug. 1, 2000 We want the nerve! We want the nerve!”
The muffled chant escapes even through the students’ gas masks and several-inch-thick observation windows. As a safety NCO watches on closed-circuit TV from a different part of the building, two “agent handlers” wearing heavy rubber robes on top of their standard military chemical protective suits enter the room. Working in tandem, they use a syringe to apply drops of VX nerve agent to several areas of a camouflaged Humvee.
Army Reserve students check the results of a simulated chemical detection test outside the Chemical Defense Training Facility. Photo by Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Then the robed handlers turn toward the camera in the corner and announce, “We’ve got the nerve.”
The students were finishing the final exercise in their chemical-defense training, a one-day visit to the hot zone deep inside the new $27 million E.F. Bullene Chemical Defense Training Facility here. Fort Leonard Wood has trained all the military’s chemical defenders since 1999, after an earlier Base Realignment and Closure Commission decision closed Fort McClellan, Ala., the school’s previous location.
Entering this state-of-the-art facility is like entering another world. Before you pass through the gate, a guard directs you to leave behind any food or medications you might have. “Anything you can ingest,” he said, “so there’s no chance of contamination.”
The staff all carry gas masks at their sides, and as the doors close behind you, you feel the “woosh” of air rushing in around you -– drawn in by the building’s negative pressure. The doors are sealed by air pressure and magnetic locks.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of all the safety precautions in this strange place set near the edge of the Ozark Mountains in southcentral Missouri. The facility is redundancy at its best. Every safety system has a backup and a backup to the backup.
“Because of the way we handle everything, there’s a greater risk of heat injury than there is of contamination,” said John Morrissey, facility deputy director.
He explained the facility provides an environment in which military chemical-defense specialists can gain confidence in their equipment. The instructors are joint. The students come from the chemical schools the services run on post. The German military also sends through several classes a year.
“Fear is often enough to degrade a unit’s performance level,” Morrissey said. “This is designed to show them they can do all the tasks they need to and still survive in a toxic environment.”
When students are preparing to enter the facility, “most of them are pretty darn nervous,” he said. “Some are petrified -- lock-kneed, heart pounding. But when they’re done and in the showers, they’re laughing and joking. They feel pretty good about themselves.”
During basic training, soldiers, sailors and Marines are exposed to CS gas to prove to them that their masks work. CS is similar to tear gas -- irritating, but not deadly. The CDTF expands on that concept. It uses the lethal nerve agents VX and GB, which is also called sarin.
“We use the real stuff, and we use enough of it to do you harm if you weren’t protected,” Morrissey said. The military’s chemical experts must have supreme confidence their equipment will protect them while they do their jobs, he said.
While the students are in the chemical environment here, they practice some of their assigned tasks. They use chemical detector kits and practice administering nerve agent antidote to a dummy dressed in battle dress uniform.
“In the CS chamber, trainees are basically standing still. Here, they’re performing missions,” Morrissey said. “By the time they’re through, they’re pretty confident that if they put on their equipment right and use it properly they’re going to be OK.”
To increase their confidence, students run through all their tasks outside without chemicals on one of six training pads and do several dry runs through the decontamination process before heading inside. Training aids here include a Humvee, an M-113 armored personnel carrier and a helicopter. “We want them to be able to train with the equipment they’ll be using,” Morrissey said.
Staff members make the nerve agent from its basic chemical components on site. He explained they make only very small batches “so there’s never much on site.”
“Agent handlers” transport their deadly chemicals in a syringe carried inside a small plastic tackle box. When the syringe is taken out of the box to apply inside the training area, the handler carries the syringe in one hand and with the other holds a bowl of decontaminant directly below the syringe.
“In case someone panics and rushes the handler, or in case of drips or accidents, the agent can be directly injected into the decontaminant and neutralized,” Morrissey said. He also explained the handlers always work in teams. “No one is allowed to carry agent alone for safety and to maintain positive control of the agent.”
The facility has a comprehensive Chemical Accident/Incident Response and Assistance Plan and regularly conducts drills with the local fire department and chemical decontamination unit, as well as with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the military police and other local authorities in which they practice responding to different scenarios ranging from accidents to terrorists, Morrissey said.
Though there’s never been a chemical accident here or during the school’s 10-year tenure at Fort McClellan, the staff is fully prepared to deal with an emergency, and two medics are present whenever students are training.
Before going into a contaminated area, everyone gets blood drawn. Instructors monitor the students constantly during their exercises and throughout the lengthy “doff,” or disrobing, process.
“If someone breaks a seal on a mask or disrobes in the wrong order, he’s ‘red tagged,’” Morrissey said. “That means he’s just earned a free trip back to the medics for another blood draw.”
The blood is then checked to determine the level of a specific neurotransmitter and compared to the level in the original blood draw. An elevated level in the second sample might indicate possible exposure to nerve agent, Morrissey explained. Staff members have their blood tested monthly to guard against gradual exposure.
Nothing is left to chance inside the CDTF. A safety control NCO monitors all rooms through closed-circuit television cameras and always maintains three methods of communication with the training rooms -- through radio, intercom and telephone. Via intercom, the safety control NCO also directs students when to go from one room to the next and makes note of any service problems and all student training problems.
A doff team is always standing by to take control of any student who experiences problems. “If anyone is injured and can’t walk, we take them to the ‘cut-out room.’ We spray them with bleach water, cut their clothes off, scrub the individual and pass him to the medics, and all the while we’re monitoring the air to determine nerve agent levels,” Morrissey said. “We can get an ambulance here faster than we can get [the student] out of the hot area.”
Several small tubes, resembling clear drinking straws or air tubing from a fish tank, hang from the ceiling in every room. He said they're connected to gas chromatographs that sample the air constantly. M-22 chemical alarms also monitor air contamination.
“If vapor levels get too high, the students are evacuated even though they are in protective equipment,” he said.
Readouts from the gas chromatographs, along with logs of who goes in and out, are kept for a generation. Several backup systems ensure uninterrupted power supply, Morrissey explained.
The facility's hot zone is actually a large dome made of foot-thick reinforced concrete. It's a “tornado-proof” building within a building. Inside this inner chamber, all instructors carry nerve agent antidote injectors, and extra injectors are readily available inside every room. Students practice injections on a dummy using expired antidote, so nothing goes to waste.
The building is equipped with four times the filtering capacity actually needed to clean the air. Air piped out of the training areas goes through nine filters.
“It should be clean then, but it goes through another nine just to be safe,” Morrissey said. “Then it is monitored one last time before being exhausted to the outside.”
There is another complete series of 18 filters “in case a fan belt breaks or there’s a maintenance problem,” he said, adding that each set of 18 filters has its own generator. “It would take quite a series of disasters to cause a problem, but we like to be sure.”
So much thought went into planning the training facility that it's located where prevailing winds blow toward unpopulated areas, just in case of an unimaginable disaster.
It’s important people in surrounding communities know these safeguards are in place, Morrissey said. “We’re dealing with scary stuff here," he remarked. "People like to be assured they’re safe, even more so for people not associated with us.”