26th MEU (SOC) breaks new ground in NBC training

11 Dec 2002 | Sgt. Roman Yurek

Marines and Sailors of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and Amphibious Squadron-6 made practical use of some unusual extra pre-deployment training time Dec. 8-11 by conducting integrated Nuclear, Biological and Chemical training aboard Camp Lejeune and in Onslow Bay.  The purpose of this training was to increase the proficiency of all MEU and PHIBRON personnel in the complex procedures of operating from shore to ship in a contaminated NBC environment.

After the MEU successfully earned its Special Operations Capable (SOC) certification in November, the MEU commanding officer, Col. Andrew P. Frick, and PHIBRON-6 commodore, Capt. David Taylor, had the unique opportunity to schedule additional training that is currently not part of the pre-deployment workup cycle.  

Recognizing one of the most dangerous threats on today's battlefield, nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, the commanders focused the units' training on this difficult tactical problem.

Today, most Marines and Sailors conduct annual NBC training in a controlled environment, such as the gas chamber.  For this training exercise, the MEU Marines and Sailors faced the challenge of combining the tactical aspects of their jobs with procedures for operating in an NBC environment.

One of the most significant challenges for these Marines was the gear that they would now have to wear.  Marines do not normally conduct raids in Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) gear.  When a Marine puts on this gear, he or she is protected from chemical and biological agents.  However, the rubber boot covers are bulky and make running more difficult.  The field protective mask reduces one's field of vision and communication abilities and the gloves minimize dexterity.  Factoring in these limitations, the individual Marine may seem like a fish out of water until he or she gets used to working in this environment.

Another unique aspect of this training was the decision to integrate U.S. Navy warships so as to present the servicemembers with the problem of how to recover contaminated MEU (SOC) personnel from operations ashore.  The ability to test and rehearse this rarely used capability was a prime target for the exercise.  In real-world MEU (SOC) operations, the ships often serve as a regional safe haven for the Marines. 

Bringing contaminated personnel or equipment to the ship would be an absolute last resort, Frick said.

But this "worst case scenario," in which a decontamination site could not be utilized on shore, was exactly the type of challenge the commanders were looking to rehearse.

"I wanted to throw every possibility at the Marines and Sailors," said Frick.  "Just like baseball, you teach your team about every type of pitch; the curveball, fastball or slider.  That way when they step up to the plate, they are prepared for whatever may come at them."

In the long and arduous months of training that led to the MEU (SOC) certification, the MEU performed a number of diverse missions on land and at sea.  For this exercise, many of those missions were presented again, however each now came with the high threat of exposure to a chemical agent.  Some of the missions executed this week included a boat raid, a mechanized vehicle raid, a ground based assault and a mass casualty drill.  Additionally, decontamination personnel were presented one of each type of ground vehicle in the MEU's inventory to decontaminate and return to service.

"The things we do day-to-day are hard," said Chief Warrant Officer-2 Tim Anderson, the 26th MEU (SOC) NBC officer.  "Here, we are trying to make it a little harder."

During one of the training scenarios conducted Dec. 10, a squad of Marines on patrol was struck by an artillery round laced with deadly mustard gas.  MEU Service Support Group-26's mass casualty team was called upon to respond.  After rapidly establishing security at the site, MSSG-26 corpsmen slowly moved into the area to access the situation and rapidly evacuate the casualties.  Since some of the Marines and Sailors were also wounded by fragmentation from the artillery shell, getting them out of the contaminated area was the first priority of the team.

All the exposed and wounded Marines and Sailors were evacuated to Onslow Beach, where MSSG-26 had established a decontamination site.  One-by-one, the casualties were cleaned of contaminates and transferred to an aid station where corpsmen and doctors stabilized them for transport back to the ships. 

When the exposed personnel arrived on ship, the ship's medical staff provided further treatment.  Other scenarios in the training evolution required personnel and equipment to bypass the shore-based site and proceed directly to the USS Iwo Jima for decontamination there.

"This training is more intense than anything else I have ever done," said Lance Cpl. John Dunfee, a military police Marine with MSSG-26.  "Everything had to be handled with more care, and that kept us on our toes."

When Charlie Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 8th Marine Regiment, 26th MEU (SOC), was tasked to conduct a helicopter raid, their suits proved vital to the success of the mission.  Inclement weather prevented aircraft to be used for the scenario, so some of the Corps' new 7-ton trucks were used to simulate a helicopter landing.  Marines assaulted the enemy and successfully seized the objective site. 

There, they recovered a crate containing a simulated weapon laced with Sarin nerve gas.  The weapon was destroyed prior to the Marines leaving the site, along with all the weapons found on scene.

Since an NBC exercise such as this had not yet been performed by a deploying MEU (SOC), the unit hopes to capture the lessons learned here, identify key friction points in existing NBC procedures and incorporate them into future Amphibious Ready Group training as well as share them with other MEU (SOC)'s, said Anderson. 

The 26th MEU will continue to train throughout December and January as it prepares for its Mediterranean deployment early next year.  For more information about the 26th MEU (SOC), visit them on the web at www.26meu.usmc.mil.