Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Disaster Preparedness Exercise Trains 500 Guardsmen in Puerto Rico

By Army Staff Sgt. S. Patrick McCollum, Special to American Forces Press Service

PONCE, Puerto Rico - An underwater earthquake triggers a tsunami as a terrorist cell is discovered producing dangerous chemicals. If there was a time to call the National Guard, this is it.

Fortunately, these scenarios are only a simulation at Vigilant Guard 2009, an exercise under way here that tests the capabilities of more than 500 Guard members from five states and territories to handle disasters and cooperate with federal, state and local partners.

The two scenarios are the main focus of the exercise. In the first, which began yesterday and ends today, Guard members from the civil support teams of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico assist civil authorities in identifying and containing chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats. The teams take turns arriving on the scene of a nonfunctioning oil refinery, stocked with suspected weapons of mass destruction by the 35th CST from West Virginia.

In the other scenario occurring today, Guard members from the Puerto Rico National Guard and Arizona Air National Guard Expeditionary Medical Support systems will assist in casualty evacuation and treatment in field hospitals.

"To be part of an exercise of this magnitude is an honor and exciting," said Capt. Aesha Rivers, acting commander of the 23rd CST from the Virgin Islands. "It's great to be able to come here in their home to help."

In the real-world-scenario feel of Vigilant Guard, Rivers saw the opportunity to help a neighbor in need, and with that the implied promise of help in return.

"If we have an incident in the Virgin Islands, we will call 22nd CST out of Puerto Rico," Rivers said. "We will call Florida. We will call Georgia. Those are our sister and brother states."

For the Guard members of Puerto Rico's 22nd CST, the exercise is a chance to improve upon training that so far has involved few of these large-scale exercises.

"This training is ... important for us," Army Staff Sgt. Edwin Rosa, a team chief with the 23rd CST from Puerto Rico, said. "It's realistic, and we will learn from this experience."