MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJUENE, N.C. -- Normally when Marines think of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical training, the first vision they get is standing inside a gas chamber with an NBC specialist telling them to run in place, shake their heads and break the seal of their field protective masks.
After the chamber, Marines go back to "normal" everyday training. But what happens when a unit decides to take NBC and throw it into a tactical training evolution?
To answer that question, just ask the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
As an addition to the Amphibious Ready Group Exercise Oct. 14-23, the Marines and Sailors of the 26th MEU debarked the ships of Amphibious Squadron 6 for two days of field training in a simulated chemically contaminated environment.
The ability to logistically support enhanced NBC operations in a contaminated tactical environment is very difficult at best, said CWO2 Timothy Anderson, NBC Officer for the 26th MEU. "Establishing ourselves in a tactical environment, away from our normal operational comfort zone, was a big benefit for us in that we could make mistakes and learn from them. By conducting this training within a larger tactical scenario, it showed a lot of us that some of those tasks that we consider second nature take much more time to accomplish," said Anderson.
Anderson further explained that the purpose of this exercise was to focus the MEU staff on the myriad of "what ifs" that may arise operating in such an environment and attempt to provide them an opportunity to talk through how they would support continuous operations once deployed there.
Once established in the field, the enhanced NBC scenario began with the MEU being called upon to assist a fictitious town where civilians had apparently come in contact with a deadly chemical agent. Combat Town, Camp Lejeune, N.C., served as the location for the scenario.
Among the first MEU responders were the Marines and Sailors of Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. The unit quickly set up blocking positions around the town to contain the potentially contaminated environment.
Once the perimeter was secured, the MEU launched one of its newest assets, the M93A1 NBC Reconnaissance System FOX vehicle. The vehicle uses a slew of sensors to feed sample readings to on-board computers, which allows it to detect up to 60 known NBC agents and eight unknown agents, explained Cpl. Timothy A. Leyhe, the FOX vehicle noncommissioned officer-in-charge.
Traveling in a convoy with Light Armored Vehicles from Weapons Company, BLT 1/8, the vehicle moved quickly into the contaminated area to gather samples and information about the potential leak to determine the scope, potency and direction of the contamination.
While moving, the vehicle uses aluminum foil covered wheels that alternately touch the ground behind it to collect and detect any contamination on the ground. As the eyes and ears for the MEU commander on potential biological or chemical agents in an area, the ability of the FOX vehicle to rapidly transmit this information is of critical importance.
Once the MEU commander was aware where the contamination was, a reconnaissance team from BLT 1/8 was sent in to begin taking more samples further inside the contaminated area. The Marines and Sailors also reported on damage done to the structures of the town, as well as the injuries and conditions of the civilians who lived there.
Even though the FOX vehicle can detect agents from several kilometers away, the Marines who go into the area still have no certainty as to what they'll encounter once they move into a contaminated area.
"The biggest fear I have is of the unknown," said 1st Lt. Matthew Clark, the assistant logistics officer and officer-in-charge for BLT 1/8's enhanced NBC team. "When we send these Marines down range, we think that we are ready, but we could get in over our heads."
Besides not knowing exactly what the situation was in the town, the BLT as a whole had to adapt to the competing priorities of the FOX vehicle, explained Sgt. Craig W. Edwards, a team leader for one of the recon teams. Marines had to immediately cease using the battalion's communication network each time the FOX vehicle was prepared to communicate, since this information had priority for the operation.
When the FOX vehicle communicated the location of an area close to the objective that was free from contamination, elements of MEU Service Support Group 26 were sent in to set up decontamination sites for casualties, equipment and personnel.
While BLT and MSSG Marines responded to the crisis in this fictitious town, MEU pilots and aircrews took to the skies to practice their missions in a contaminated environment.
Assisting with the transportation of personnel to the town and evacuation of simulated casualties was Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 264 (Reinforced). The squadron simulated their response to a chemical or biological threat as the pilots and crew wore protective gear, such as field protective masks and outer garments, throughout their flight to and from the contaminated zone.
With the use of a P23-P-14A protective mask, all of the aircrews were not only able to function effectively while staying clean of any contamination, but they also gained the confidence in their gear that only realistic training can build. This mask has a built-in microphone so the aircrew can communicate and a filter system that is connected to a fan and charcoal filter, which can fit inside a pocket.
"With the possibility of operating in a contaminated area, we are learning how we can continue to function in that environment safely," said Cpl. Brett H. Peterson, a CH-46E Sea Knight crew chief.
As part of the challenging training, ACE Marines simulated transporting contaminated casualties away from the area and decontaminating the aircraft and crew. After dropping off casualties, the aircraft flew to a designated safe landing zone where other aircraft had brought in decontamination teams. The teams immediately went to work decontaminating the aircraft, gear and personnel. This tedious task was time consuming yet essential to ensure that all the aircraft were able to return to a 'fully mission-capable' status.
With so much activity about, the command element was processing and relaying the information stream to higher headquarters.
In addition to supervising the overall MEU response and training, the individual Marines in the command element learned how to man decontamination sites, perform protective gear and clothing exchanges and continually monitored the area to detect biological or chemical agents.
"Just because we are not specifically tasked with these missions, doesn't release us of the responsibility of knowing how to do it," said Gunnery Sgt. Glen M. Lemire, the NBC chief for the MEU, who provided the training to the command element personnel.
After two days of "Gas! Gas! Gas!" the MEU finished their training and moved one step closer to refining its standard operating procedures for future NBC operations.
"These Marines are getting some real world training in the field, testing and perfecting their NBC capabilities," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Steve Lucas, the evaluating officer-in-charge of the Combat Town training evolution.
In December, the MEU plans on continuing its NBC training with another exercise, this time involving the three ships of Amphibious Squadron-6, who will carry the Marines and Sailors to ports unknown for their upcoming six-month deployment.