Facility providing realistic chemical training

Spc. D. Stewart Howell

FORT MCCLELLAN, Ala., (Army News Service, May 13, 1998) -- On March 20, 1995, a Japanese religious cult shocked the world by committing a previously unthinkable act -- using a chemical weapon in a terrorist attack.

The blast that devastated the lives of hundreds on board that unsuspecting subway train was a sobering reminder of just how vulnerable American citizens and institutions are to acts of terrorism here at home.

As ghastly as the Tokyo Subway incident was, however, counter-terrorism experts report these scenes of destruction and the loss of lives are minor when compared with what could happen if domestic or international terrorists unleashed weapons of mass destruction to advance their personal or political agendas. National policy makers, military leaders and local authorities have recognized the seriousness of the threat of chemical or biological terrorism and are taking action.

Since its opening in 1987, the Chemical Defense Training Facility has served as the principle training center in the area of realistic NBC defense to help American citizens and their allies combat such threats at home. Operating joint readiness, awareness and response training for service members from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, the CDTF is one of the only facilities of its kind in the world to produce decontamination training in a toxic environment.

As the only live chemical-agent training center within the Department of Defense, the CDTF also plays a key role in improving personnel survivability in domestic and civil chemical and biological incidents. In cooperation with the U.S. Army Chemical School here, the CDTF trains more than 5,000 students a year from federal, state and civil organizations.

These include law enforcement officials, emergency first responders and NBC specialists from more than 34 countries who have all experienced the physically and mentally demanding training offered at the facility.

"This training is critical to soldiers and their civilian counterparts," said Stephen Cook, operations specialist and deputy chief, CDTF. "Because emergency first responders such as police officers and fire personnel are going to be the first people to react to possible terrorist incident, their training here will give the advantage they need to protect lives."

To qualify them as experts in combating these threats, the more than 40,000 students who have trained at the CDTF have all met the potentially hazardous challenge of venturing into a live agent environment to test their skills and their trust in their protective equipment. In its 11 years of operation, the CDTF has never had anyone exposed to an agent.

The CDTF is proud of its training and safety records. It has never missed a single day of training and has completed more than 300,000 man hours supporting operations without accidents or incidents.

"We just got a thank-you card this week from one organization whose personnel completed the course and have now moved on to put their training to use," Cook said. "Because of what they learned here, they now have the confidence necessary to go out and put their training to use protecting lives."

Chemical and biological terrorism are looming threats in today's society. Aum Shinrikyo, a fanatical leader of a Japanese cult, unleashed sarin gas on the Tokyo subway system. This terrified millions, giving government and security forces around the world a wake-up call to be mentally and physically prepared to combat NBC security threats both on the battlefield, and in the civilian sector.

Experts say training at the CDTF is invaluable. According to Cook, it provides realistic and challenging training that enhances individual proficiency and confidence. U.S. officials and independent analysts agree it's only a matter of time before the U.S. will be forced to grapple with the specter of nuclear, biological or chemical terrorism. NBC experts contend that the safety of our troops and the security of our nation will be strengthened by the improved emphasis on NBC readiness, and counter-terrorism. But the clock is ticking. Because military members at every level and in all kinds of units may one day be subjected to chemical attack, they must know how to survive under these conditions to be able to fight and win.

"The training we offer here certifies an individual as a chemical expert and gives them the credibility they need to go out and train others," Cook said.

"The live agent training is our equivalent of pushing a parachutist out of an airplane or training on a live fire range. This training offered here is the best of its kind in the world."

(Editor's note: Howell is a writer with the Fort McClellan newspaper, McClellan News.)