Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chemical training teaches Soldiers to save lives

Sgt. Chris McCann

No “weapons of mass destruction” were found in Iraq – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of terribly destructive substances there. Explosives, toxic chemicals and unknown matter are found with surprising regularity. But the average Soldier can’t be equipped for every eventuality; that’s what chemical Soldiers are for.
Recently, Soldiers from around the 10th Mountain Division conducted Toxic Industrial Chemical Protection and Detection Equipment training at the old Nash Gym on south post to learn how to deal quickly – and safely – with hazardous material.
“It’s sensitive site exploitation,” said Staff Sgt. Nygree Poole, with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 2nd BCT. “For example, if a patrol finds a building that contains a trashcan filled with liquids, they can call in a team in suit level A, and check out the substance.”
Explosives are destroyed by explosive ordnance disposal with a controlled detonation, but that’s not safe when it comes to possible chemicals, said Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Meacham, the chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear noncommissioned officer for 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd BCT.
“When they come into a facility with unknown stuff, the patrol can pull back and get the chemical Soldiers – usually a supporting unit – that goes in,” said Meacham. “EOD does the boom, we do the chemical part.”
And while the enemy is making explosives in bathtub labs, the Soldiers are using some of the most high-tech equipment available to make identification and disposal or destruction easy.
The Multirae is a hand-held tool that samples air continuously and alerts specialists to explosive environments and volatile organic compounds like benzene or acetone.
A box a little deeper than a laptop computer holds the HazMat ID – a compact, watertight spectrographic machine that uses a laser to read the molecular ‘print’ of a substance placed on a lens. If the HazMat ID can’t identify it with certainty, Soldiers trained in TICPDE can sample the material to send to a lab, triple-sealed and decontaminated between layers, for additional testing.
Perhaps one of the most ingenious devices is a handheld computer called a Cobra, a heavily cross-indexed database of chemicals and elements. If a Soldier who was possibly exposed to harmful substances, symptoms can be put into the Cobra, which offers choices at every stage, narrowing down the possibilities and indicating immediate assistance measures, said one of the contractors teaching the class. Alternately, if the substance is identified by HazMat ID, the Cobra can indicate the threats it poses to troops and the civilians in the area. It also gives data for the material’s physical forms, reactivity, health hazards, and possible uses.
Of course, using such tools requires plenty of training.
“This is outstanding,” said Meacham. “We’ve been doing this for two and a half weeks now. We’re in 11-man teams, and two are the reconnaissance team who take the most direct route to the possibly contaminated area, mark the clean areas, photograph the hazards, sketch it out, and report to the rest of the team.
“Two people take the HazMat ID and tools and identify the substance as best as possible, then come back, put the data together, and brief the commander.”
Meacham said he wishes the 2nd BCT had access to the training and tools during their most recent deployment to Iraq; units around the brigade found chlorine gas, nitric acid, canisters of PCB, and other dangerous substances. During the 2nd BCT’s previous rotation in 2005, Meacham was called upon to identify unknown materials.
“We found rat poison and other things – if we’d had this, it would’ve been much easier,” he said.
Spc. Michael Taube, a CBRN Soldier with 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd BCT, said it was good practice even if the specific skills were not needed.
“It’s good hands-on training – the civilians teaching us brought enough equipment that we can train to standard. And I’ve learned a lot about identifying chemicals and mitigating their effects, instead of the identify-and-destroy idea.”
Hands-on training in a tactical environment was a positive for Sgt. Jason Seeds, also of the 2nd BSTB.
“I loved the hands-on, realistic training,” said Seeds. “Now we’re working with real agents.”
The test substances were real, offering Soldiers a chance to identify muriatic acid and other agents that could be safely confined.
“When units find homemade explosives, we could do on-the-spot evaluation, and that would save time,” Seeds said. “And it would help the intelligence Soldiers identify where they came from.”
After identifying the substances, the Soldiers decontaminated, passing under a wash booth before having another Soldier pass a Multirae wand over them to sample the plastic chemical suit for any remaining contaminants.
“This is a lot of good knowledge,” said Taube. “Especially about how everything works together, and teamwork.”

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