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New Army, Air Guard disaster response team conducts May validation exercise

MEAD, Neb -- -- The Nebraska National Guard's training site near Mead, Neb, was hardly recognizable.
For approximately a week in mid-May, the prairie training site was transformed into the center of a major disaster. 

There, members of the Nebraska National Guard's new Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and high-yield Explosive (CBRNE) Enhanced Response Force worked desperately to rescue victims trapped in a massive concrete rubble pile and then provide them with the decontamination and medical treatment they needed to survive a suspected terrorist attack. 

Fortunately for everyone involved, the attack was just an exercise designed to give the members of the newly created CERF a chance to fully demonstrate their newly learned skills before the ever-watchful eyes of federal evaluators who had been charged with ensuring that the new multi-unit team was ready to respond to a wide variety of emergency missions. 

The CERF is a new Nebraska National Guard capability designed to assist civilian first responders in the fields of casualty search and extraction, casualty/patient decontamination and medical triage support. 

The CERF is made up of 186 Soldiers and Airmen from Omaha's 126th Chemical Battalion Headquarters and 754th Chemical Reconnaissance/Decontamination Company, Wahoo's 623rd Vertical Engineer Company and Lincoln's 155th Medical Group, State Medical Detachment and 92nd Troop Command. 

Also involved were the Air Guard's 155th Civil Engineering Squadron, Lincoln, and the Army Guard's 317th and 181st Engineering Detachment (Fire Fighting Team,) Norfolk.
According to Col. Michael Navrkal, Nebraska National Guard training and operations officer for domestic support, the Guardsmen did extremely well during the CERF's May 12-18 validation exercise. 

"It went extremely well," said Navrkal. "(I'm) very pleased with what we saw from our Soldiers and Airmen." 

"The bottom line is, they showed a tremendous amount of proficiency - both individually and collectively - in performing that mission that they've been given," he said. "You're talking about a mission that that's not their primary job in the military. This is really a secondary set of skills that they're developing." 

"But they've really embraced it - the mission overall and the training that's been required of them," Navrkal said. "I couldn't be more pleased with how they did." 

The CERF was first formed in July 2006. The May 2008 exercise was designed to prove to federal evaluators that the team was now fully trained and capable of completing a wide array of missions in support of civilian first responders. 

The Nebraska CERF is the 16th of a planned 17 National Guard CERFs. Nebraska will be responsible for providing support to the state of Nebraska and could also be called to assist officials in Iowa, Kansas and Missouri, said Navrkal. 

During the Mead Training, the Nebraska Soldiers and Airmen practiced responding to a terrorist attack at a Lincoln mall. Not only did the Guardsmen have to locate victims located under tons of broken concrete, they also had to successfully decontaminate patients using the CERF's newly received decontamination equipment while also effectively managing the medical triage operations by deciding which patients needed immediate attention and which ones needed to wait. 

According to Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy, who visited the Mead Training Site on May 16, the new CERF is an important part of the state's ability to respond to a wide array of different emergency situations - both accidental and terrorist related. 

"We're very proud of what our Army and Air Guard does here in Nebraska to support the mission of the governor," said Sheehy, who also serves as the state homeland defense director. "They have played a significant role in the Global War on Terror. We're very proud of the capabilities they have developed over this period of time." 

"This is just going to make Nebraska better prepared to respond and to recover from instances within Nebraska," he added. 

Navrkal said the Nebraskans made a good impression on the National Guard Bureau evaluators, adding that the CERF received 'Go' ratings on each of its major evaluation areas during the Sunday exercise, May 18. 

"Our Soldiers and Airmen performed tremendously across the whole spectrum of tasks that we have to complete," Navrkal said. "Informally... the evaluators said our Soldiers and Airmen did a tremendous job. They were very pleased with the amount of enthusiasm and the level of proficiency that our Soldiers and Airmen demonstrated on Sunday as well." 

According to the Guardsmen involved, the mission is an excellent one for the Nebraska National Guard to be involved in. 

"It's good," said Senior Airman Katie Score, a 173rd Aerial Refueling Squadron medic as she struggled into her protective suit while preparing to complete her shift in the hot zone triage center. "You can definitely use (these skills) in the real world. You can definitely see the long-term goal." 

Senior Airman Sarah Rasmussen agreed, saying the entire team was getting better with each iteration of the exercise. 

"It's been going very well. We keep getting better every single day we do this," said Rasmussen, a member of the 155th Medical Group. "It's going smoothly today."
Another person sold on the new mission is Pvt. Riley Ohde, a member of the 755th Chemical Recon/Decon Co. who was working as part of the redress team, helping ensure that walking patients were clear of contaminates before helping them dress into clean clothes after going through the decontamination shower process. 

"It's awesome...it's pretty interesting," said Ohde. "If we had to do it in real life, I think we'd be pretty good at it by now." 

Ohde said it was particularly good to know that if the CERF was ever needed, she and her fellow Guardsmen would be part of an important asset to help patients receive the care they need. 

"If this ever happens - and all of the chemical people say it eventually will - they're definitely going to need people who know how to do this. I think this training is definitely going to help us."
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