The National Guard is the US military’s reserve force, offering manpower, equipment, and expertise for missions abroad but also providing America’s first line of defence at home.
When there’s a natural disaster or a threat to public safety that law enforcement alone can’t handle, the Guard kicks into action. It is constantly preparing itself for new and emerging threats, be they nuclear, chemical, biological, or a natural disaster.
We recently watched the New Jersey National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 113th Infantry participate in a drill to practice how they would respond to a possible nuclear or chemical emergency without warning and with no immediate explanation of what was happening. The snap exercise aimed to duplicate the conditions of an actual unfolding threat and showed how the Guard keeps itself prepared for even a worst-case scenario.
The National Guard team arrives early in the morning on a frigid November day. The drill is as much a test of endurance as a test of skills, with the team working out in the cold for eight hours or more.
Arm & Hammer Park, home of the minor league Trenton Thunder baseball team, was the site of the drill. The military chooses locations for tests like these by picking 'high-value targets' that would be likely to be hit by an attack, like sporting venues and theatres.
The New Jersey team, and every other National Guard team, is tested every 18 months in high-pressure, high-stakes role plays like this one.
The drill unfolds based on a real-time scenario. Members of US Army North's Civil Support Training Activity (wearing the orange and black jacket), who are running the drill, brief the officers in charge of the situation.
After Army North's briefing, Steve, the manager of the facility (center), briefs the Guardsmen. He tells them he saw multiple men run out of the stadium -- and when he checked the stadium's executive suites, he saw what looked like a chemical lab.
The mission in this simulation is to remove potential weapons material from the lab inside the stadium, test the material, and then check personnel for radiation or chemical agents -- with the constant threat of a larger crisis looming in the background.
The clock is ticking as the simulation in Trenton unfolds. As in a real-life disaster scenario, things move quickly and there's an information fog: The officers get only a small amount of background on the situation they will face at the base. When they arrive on site and meet with the army personnel running the simulation, they get more of the story.
Today, a big part of the scenario is making sure personnel on hand aren't exposed to the potentially deadly effects of whatever's in the stadium. 'We take an all-hands approach to anyone showing symptoms,' one of the medical officers on hand said. 'They have to be evaluated and then reevaluated.'
The drill has a lot of moving parts. 'Controllers' from Army North will stop Guard personnel if they miss something in their procedure and give them a chance to correct it. Controllers will also stop the Guards periodically to give them new information. These documents are the majority of information the team has on the scenario.
Each team member goes into the ballpark to investigate the situation separately to test their skills. They investigate the 'chemical lab' found by the building supervisor as well the many rooms throughout the ballpark. Here, a Guardsman suits up to prepare to check out the lab inside the stadium.
Everyone gets to find something potentially dangerous in the stadium, since every member of the team needs to be tested. The field members will find a sample of a chemical agent that they must then bring back to the mobile lab for testing. Then they must go through the decontamination process.
The Guards had to get fully suited-up and investigate possible dangerous materials inside the stadium.
The team has to investigate every surface of the rooms they secure to make sure everything is discovered. It's a tedious but necessary job.
The team has numerous devices that can detect radiation or chemical agents. They are also required to photograph everything they do so that it can be viewed by the command team.
As they work through the rooms, they must call out everything they see. The team is hooked up via radio to team members in the command truck. By announcing everything they do, they relay information to their immediate teammate and the team at HQ.
They have to make sure everyone knows exactly what is going on and what has been checked. In a real-life scenario like this, lives would be on the line with every decision and maybe even every footstep. The command team can also alert them to areas they might have missed or new info about potential threats.
After doing initial tests on the lab, they have to secure every other room on the floor to ensure they aren't missing anything.
'I'm curious to see if they can identify what a bad person is trying to do,' says Army exercise specialist Richard Martin, who helped run the drill. Checking every room and every surface takes a long time, but if there is a bomb or agent hiding here that they miss, it could mean lost lives.
After securing the rooms on the floor, they head back to the enemy's lab to take samples of the agents they have found. 'They need to know exactly what they are finding,' says Martin. 'The worst thing they could do is misinterpret a finding.'
This is one of the main lab technicians. He explains that if a sample comes up positive for a chemical agent, biological agent, or radiation, half of the sample will be sectioned off and sent to an outside lab run by the state for verification.
The Guards also have to head to a decontamination tent to ensure they aren't exposed to hazardous materials. The team is equipped to decontaminate and treat only National Guard personnel. If the public were exposed in a scenario, that would handled by another team.
There's a station near the tent where Guards clean off their boots and suits after emerging from the stadium.
US Army North's Civil Support Training Activity unit goes from base to base to assess the readiness of the National Guard as well as evaluate and train Guard personnel for crisis response.
Tests like these help keep the Guard prepared for facing a potential worst-case scenario and respond to stateside threats the no one else can.
So who are these Guardsmen? America's nearly half a million Guardsmen are split between full-time Guardsmen and those that work civilian jobs and act as Guardsmen part-time.
The roots of the New Jersey Guard go all the way back to the state's first militia: the First New Jersey Regiment, which defected from the Crown in 1775 to join George Washington's Continental Army. They saw action at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, where British forces surrendered.
The New Jersey Army National Guard has been involved in every war since World War II and deployed throughout the Middle East over the past decade. Below is a photo of the Guard's 250th Signal Battalion deployed in Iraq.
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