By Staff Sgt. Steven Smith
Texas Army National Guard
TRAINING AREA LEST, Slovakia – Seventeen Texas Army National Guard engineers from the 136th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade's 836th Engineer Company provided search and rescue support and participated recently in a multinational exercise, Operation Toxic Lance, at this site in central Slovakia.
The operation, which ran March 12-23, brought together chemical and engineer-trained Soldiers from the Texas and Indiana Army National Guards as well as the Slovakian and Czech Republic militaries, as part of the National Guard Bureau's State Partnership Program that focuses on building interoperability and strengthening international relationships through military-to-military exchanges.
The Texas-based Soldiers are search and rescue qualified and provide real-world response to FEMA Region VI as one part of the Texas-run Homeland Response Force, under the command of the 136th.
The purpose of this exercise was to participate with and to demonstrate search and rescue skillsets to partnered service members in the Slovakian and Czech Republic military chemical response units.
"We do not have any type of search and rescue units, or soldiers trained in that discipline here in the Slovak army," said Lt. Col. Oliver Toderiska, Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Battalion commander for the Slovakian army. "Seeing the Texas Soldiers integrated with our chemical response teams, working hand in hand with our own soldiers shows us how we could also use search and rescue."
While Texas brought refined search and rescue skills, techniques and procedures to the exercise to share with their partners, their Slovakian allies brought experienced chemical experts to share training and response procedures.
The Texas search and rescue team has trained countless hours on simulated exercises, involving scenarios such as accidental and terrorism themed mass explosions, radiation threats and hazardous chemicals. But the main effort during Operation Toxic Lance was a chemical weapons threat and each day a new scenario was presented around that threat forcing Soldiers to respond to new challenges.
One scenario presented a lab, run by a terrorist organization that manufactured chemical weapons and released a chemical.
"We've worked a lot with how to perform in and mitigate radiation threats, but we haven't spent a lot of time on weaponized chemical agents," said Sgt. Myles Merriweather, Texas Army National Guard search and rescue team member. "We can take what we've learned here and use it to establish our own (processes) back home."
Each service member involved in Operation Toxic Lance went through a scenario where a live chemical agent was used. For most of the engineers who are certified in search and rescue, this this was the first time they were exposed to a live chemical agent. The exercise built confidence in their equipment, proved the concept of proper decontamination and showed the importance of technical proficiency in a chemical environment.
"The Texas Soldiers have come a long way since they first arrived," said Slovakian Army Capt. Labraska, doctor of chemistry for the Slovak unit, speaking on the Texas National Guard Soldiers' ability to adapt to new tactics, techniques and procedures.
The Slovak army has state of the art chemical labs, reconnaissance vehicles, equipment, agents and they are subject-matter experts in combating chemical warfare, but have no formal training in search and rescue disciplines.
With the increased threat of terrorism throughout the globe, the Slovak chemical unit is studying how to improve rapid mobilization, response operations and augment rescue efforts in a chemical attack, should that day ever come.
"The Slovak military doesn't usually practice with its local first responders, nor is there a procedure in place for it, but luckily that's something that our task force does very well," said one of the Texas Guard members serving as a search and rescue evaluator for the exercise. "What makes our organization so good at working with any entity and in operational constraints is that we will augment the efforts on the ground and provide whatever support the incident commander needs. Even though we are a military unit, we don't take over an event, we provide the most good for the most people in whatever capacity we're needed."
Texas Guard members discussed these methods at the National Slovakia Emergency Response Conference, as well as, Slovak Lt. Gen. Pavel Macko, the deputy chief of defense, British Gen. Andrew Garth serving as the military attaché to Slovakia, and a group of military command staff comprised of leaders from several other countries.
"I don't know how you Guard Soldiers do it," Garth remarked. "How you're able to have a combat military specialty and also find the time to train on a completely different task such as this, as complicated as this, and be proficient, is beyond me."
Participating in Operation Toxic Lance was a huge endeavor for the Texas Soldiers involved, every day putting on a chemical suit and mask while conducting physically demanding complex search and rescue operations. But the end result was an experience that was once in a military career.
"The training gave me a new perspective on how search and rescue operations can integrate into chemical reconnaissance" said Spc. Katty Gracia, chemical noncommissioned officer for the 836th Engineer Company. "Even with a language barrier, it's amazing what you can accomplish when you have a common goal and the right motivation."