Guard Civil Support Teams Provide WMD Expertise to Communities
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
CAMP ROBINSON, Ark., May 25, 2005 Members of the 61st Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team here like to think of themselves as a fire department.
Members of the 61st Civil Support Team prepare a sample for testing during an exercise in Dugway, Utah. Photo by Brandie Mikesell
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"We're ready to go, but we don't go until the bell goes off," said Air Force Lt. Col. Keith Bauder, commander of the unit since it stood up five years ago.
The "bell" would sound in the event of an attack or incident involving chemical, biological or radiological agents, nuclear hazards or high-yield explosives. As one of 55 units of its kind nationwide within the National Guard, the 61st CST would respond to, advise and assist local and regional authorities.
"Our mission is to help the first-responding community," said Bauder.
The first 10 civil support teams were established shortly after then-President Clinton announced their formation in 1998 and were certified -- meaning they were fully staffed and met specific training and performance standards -- in 2001.
The Arkansas unit was part of the second phase of CST roll-ins, established in 2000 and certified two years later. Today, every U.S. state and territory has a team, with 32 certified and another 12 expected to get certified by late summer.
The Arkansas team, with 16 full-time members -- 16 Army National Guard and six Air Guard -- is part of a national network that Bauder said brings specialized skills to support local responders during emergency.
Teams undergo 15 months of individual and unit training, then fine-tune their skills daily so they're ready to respond during a crisis: identifying agents or substances involved, evaluating the threat, and helping local authorities determine the best response.
"We practice hazardous-material and WMD detection on a daily basis, and we work with our equipment on a daily basis," said Army Maj. Robert Baye, the team's medical officer. "This is our fulltime job, not a distraction or an additional duty like it is for most other people. And that's probably our greatest strength."
Local and state authorities who train regularly with the 61st CST are "very, very receptive" to the unit and its capabilities, Bauder said.
"We're held in high esteem by the community," Baye said. "We bring something to the table and into the fight that not a lot of people have."
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "the bell has gone off" for the unit 17 times. Six incidents involved anthrax scares. Others involved a chemical plant explosion in nearby Conway, Ark., and the illegal dumping of fly poison. In February 2002, the unit was called into action when the space shuttle exploded over Texas, carrying tanks of highly explosive chemicals with it.
"This shows the kinds of situations we're capable of responding to," said Army 1st Lt. Mike Allen, the survey team leader. "It doesn't have to be a terrorist event."
During each incident, the unit deployed with its two key pieces of equipment: a mobile lab used to analyze chemical and biological agents, and a communications suite capable of linking responders and their local, state, federal and military headquarters.
"With each mission, we take away important lessons learned and apply them to our training so we can become even better at what we do," said Army Staff Sgt. Wright Cookus, the survey team chief.
Cookus, who had 12 years of experience in the nuclear-biological-chemical specialty before becoming a full-time 61st CST member, said he enjoys the mental and physical challenges of the job.
Other unit members say they like being on the forefront of new technologies and techniques in emergency response. "Everything we're involved with is high-tech and cutting-edge," said Baye. "That makes this a really cool job."
But the greatest satisfaction, they said, is knowing that they can help make a difference in the event of a catastrophic event and help protect their local communities.
"It feels good knowing that if you do everything the way you're supposed to, fewer people will get hurt and you'll help minimize the losses," Cookus said.