23rd CB at Dugway
6/13/2012
By Al Vogel

Though it was the first visit to Dugway Proving Ground, Utah by the 23rd and 110th CBRN battalions of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., it had an air of “Welcome Back.”

Two components of the CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological & Nuclear) battalions have earlier links to Dugway: their specialized Stryker vehicles and the Technical Escort Unit (TEU) trained to transport and handle toxic agents,

Beginning in 2006, a variant of the Stryker, the NBCRV (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Reconnaissance Vehicle), underwent chem/bio testing at Dugway. Testing ensured it would accurately detect and analyze, and protect its crew while doing so.

In 2003, Charlie Company Technical Escort Unit (TEU) of the 110th Chemical Battalion left Dugway and was reassigned to Fort Lewis. This summer, Charlie Company will be renamed the 501st Chemical Company (TE) and moved under 23rd CBRN battalion. The 23rd CBRN battalion will be assigned to South Korea in early 2013; the 110th CBRN will remain at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

More than 300 Soldiers arrived April 30 for a 10-day exercise -- Desert Lion -- that challenged and strengthened their chem/bio defense training and experience.

U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground is under Army Test & Evaluation Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. It’s 80 road miles from Salt Lake City, in the high desert of northwestern Utah. Created in 1942, its primary mission is to test defenses against chemical and biological agents, and train personnel in that defense.

Dugway is 800,000 acres of remote desert, bordering the 1.8 million-acre Utah Test & Training Range, operated by the U.S. Air Force. The combined 2.6 million acres have restricted airspace. In local parlance, Dugway has “room to boom.”

In classrooms, labs and with realistic scenarios, Dugway trains military and civilian groups how to identify and deal with a suspected chem/bio threat. With its world-class expertise and facilities to teach, Dugway was ideal for the CBRN Soldiers to hone their skills and learn.

The CBRN Soldiers were billeted in Utah National Guard (UTNG) barracks during Desert Lion. UTNG provided a Blackhawk helicopter for some scenarios, and cooks to feed the Soldiers (who praised the excellent chow).

Lt. Col. Sean Kirschner of Sarasota, Fla., commander of the 23rd CBRN battalion, praised all that Dugway offered during Desert Lion.

“Dugway Proving Ground is the premiere facility in the world to conduct CBRN training. It’s got the resources, people and flexibility to accommodate everything we wanted to do,” he said. “Nowhere else can you get a realistic, combat-like environment for a CBRN Soldier to train in.”

Especially welcome were Dugway’s environmental permits that allow outdoor use, in specific areas, of actual decontaminants, and a variety of simulants – benign substances and microorganisms with the same characteristics as actual chem/bio agents. Washington State denies their use at Joint-Base Lewis McChord, Kirschner said.

“I suspect that word will begin to spread what a great environment this is for CBRN training, and this will become very popular to conduct full-spectrum and CBRN-focused training,” Kirschner said.

The downside? Kirschner said it’s getting personnel and equipment to such a remote post. Dugway lacks a rail line, so the battalion’s fleet of over 100 vehicles was trucked in. The Soldiers flew commercially into Dugway’s modernized Michael Army Airfield.

Dugway’s remoteness is both a logistical obstacle and – in this age of military fenceline encroachment – great asset.

“There’s a silver lining to its remoteness,” Kirschner said. “It allows us to train without distractions. It forces you to deploy here like you would to any austere environment.”

The 300 Soldiers operated at the platoon level and were assigned different training each day: lab instruction with scientists, live-fire, convoys across the desert, classroom instruction, realistic scenarios, etc. West Desert Test Center arranged the training, drawing upon its experienced test and training divisions: Special Programs, Chemical Test, Life Sciences, Test Support, Dissemination & Explosives and a host of others.

Because of Dugway’s enormity, platoons could be dozens of miles from each other. To aid communication, a detachment of the 23rd CBRN battalion’s communications section established two retransmit sites. One was on 6,000-foot Camel’s Back Ridge, 1,000 feet above the desert flats. The easily accessed site provided straight-line retransmission for 50 kilometers (31 miles) and a spectacular 100-mile view.

Scientists taught in the same labs where they test detectors, protective clothing and other chem/bio defenses. Using simulants, chemists and microbiologists guided Soldiers in practicing lab and sampling techniques.

At a mock village, Soldiers were shown a simulated “terrorist lab” for making biological or chemical agents, constructed from over-the-counter materials. They learned its hazards and how to obtain samples for analysis or forensics.

Other training was scenario-based, and included live-fire of the Stryker NBCRV’s remotely controlled M2 .50-caliber machine gun against vehicles and strongholds, and reconnaissance across miles of desert.

Stryker teams also practiced two types of chem/bio detection – stand-off and point detection -- with simulants disseminated over small areas to replicate contamination. Stand-off detects contaminated areas from a distance without entry; point detection requires entry.

In full protective clothing and gas masks, Soldiers decontaminated Strykers on a dirt road in the desert. This authentic scenario at nearly 5,000 feet altitude, in temperatures in the low 90s, was challenging.

Maj. Billy Maltbie of Stockbridge, Ga., operations officer for the 23rd CBRN battalion, watched Soldiers decontaminate Strykers, pleased at the realism.

“The biggest thing is the expertise that comes with training at Dugway, and the wide-open areas with different units in different areas all doing something,” Maltbie said. “This is about as real as it gets, short of combat. This is about the best training that these guys can receive.”

During earlier reconnaissance practice, Capt. Nick Bell of Goshen, Ind., watched six Stryker NBCRVs moving cross-country abreast in a mile-wide line, firing .50-cal blanks.

“We just don’t have the capacity back home to do this, all this room to maneuver like they would in combat,” he said. “You can’t replicate it anywhere else.”

The other platoons in the battalion convoyed along Ambush Alley – a dirt road between remote hills -- firing live ammo during a simulated, remotely controlled attack. Soldiers also fired blanks at “insurgents” who attacked with blank munitions.

Some crew members were designated casualties, changing the scenario from an attack to medical evacuation. Designated evacuation vehicles sped to where the Utah National Guard landed a Blackhawk helicopter. Soldiers carried the “casualties” on litters to the waiting helicopter.

Medics were embedded with each platoon, and stabilized the “wounded” that were flown 20 miles to Casualty Operations at the barracks. There, medics “treated” them and simulated personal effects inventory and other tasks.

Despite temperatures from low 90s in the day, to mid 30s some nights, tanglefoot brush, live-fire, rattlesnakes, scorpions, and oblivious pronghorn antelope on the roads, Desert Lion had no serious injuries. Everyone who came to the aid station later returned to the field.

Spec. Amanda Tyson of Orville, Ohio, a medic, was surprised by the lack of heat and altitude casualties.

“They’re not used to the altitude and the heat, and they’re in MOPP gear a lot,” she said. “We had few real-world casualties.”

Maj. Justin Hurt, 23rd CBRN battalion plans officer, said Desert Lion had a hectic schedule but training exceeded their plans.

“Things went very well. Running an exercise that has 23 separate mission types and 60 separate mission orders is complicated,” Hurt said. “You have to coordinate with all the people on Dugway, and between the units in the battalion. What was really exciting was seeing all the different units come together and do an actual mission. Seeing the whole timeline merge was really great.”

Sgt. Kevin Schmidt of Rawlins, Wyo., was surprised by Dugway’s resemblance to Afghanistan: jagged mountain ranges and peaks, some of them still bearing snow, jutting far above brush-covered flats.

“I had no idea what it would be like coming here,” he said. “I thought it would be all salt flats, but the terrain varies so much. The first impression I got looking out the window was, Damn. This is Kandahar.”

Capt. Maryanne Luther, of Rochester, N.Y., particularly liked firing the M249 machine gun against a target vehicle towed by cable, using real decontaminant, and getting to use explosives.

“We got training here that some Soldiers haven’t had in 10 or 15 years,” she said. “I thought it was excellent. Everyone’s tired, so that must be a good sign, right?”

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Al Vogel is a writer and photographer for the Public Affairs Office at U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, Utah.