As the nation reflected on the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Wisconsin National Guard's 54th Civil Support Team was hard at work training to combat terrorism here at home.
The Madison, Wisconsin-based unit concluded a multi-day exercise in Milwaukee where evaluators from U.S. Army North assessed the unit's ability to respond to the myriad scenarios the CST could encounter.
The Sept. 11 exercise required the 54th to enter a vacant office building in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, where civilian investigators believed a terrorist had manufactured a bomb and nerve agents that had been deployed in a fictional scenario at a Milwaukee concert venue two days earlier.
A survey team entered the building in full protective gear to assess the situation using sophisticated equipment to monitor the air for threats and hazards. As part of the exercise, one of the survey team members simulated an incapacitating injury that tested the team's aptitude at extracting an injured team member and decontaminating him before medical treatment.
Every 18 months, the CST gets a full-scale evaluation from U.S. Army North, where it tests everything from the unit's ability to analyze hazardous materials, to providing medical treatment, decontamination, and even the unit's logistics and communications operations.
They get tested beginning with the initial alert to assembly, deployment, arriving on scene, conducting their mission and re-supplying, according to Jeff Taylor, one of the U.S. Army North evaluators on-site in Milwaukee. The unit must be able to sustain itself for up to 72 hours without resupplying.
All 57 civil support teams in the nation are graded on the same criteria every 18 months in addition to each unit's requirement to complete at least one collective training event every month. The 54th CST conducts an average of 20-24 collective training events each year, according to Lt. Col. David May, the unit's commander.
That sort of vigilance and preparation is required for the unit to be on call 24 hours a day for 365 days a year.
But the hard work has paid off. The 54th CST is considered one of the best in the nation, and its importance has only grown in the communities in which it serves.
A part-time predecessor to the 54th existed in the 1990s, but in 2004, the unit became a full-time asset. Senior Master Sgt. Chris Brown, the unit's enlisted leader, has been with the unit since its inception and wanted to join the unit because of the mission and a desire to serve his community.
And while Brown hopes the team never needs to be called into action, it gets called to several real-world missions each year in addition to standby missions at sporting events or other large-scale events.
"It's always a hope for everybody that those things don't happen," Brown said. "But you have to be ready to help if it does."
The events of Sept. 11, 13 years earlier illustrated the importance of vigilance and preparedness, and the significance of that day's events were not lost on the unit, which observed a moment of silence in the midst of the exercise.
"That was certainly a day that had an impact on all of our lives certainly and all Americans, so we thought it would be fitting to have a moment of silence and reflection on this 13th anniversary," May said. "I think that it's significant that we're all out here training."
The Milwaukee exercise provided Sgt. Ava Kielisch, the team's newest member, with an opportunity to get hands-on experience almost immediately. Kielisch returned from training just two weeks prior to the exercise and is now on the unit's survey team, which enters potentially contaminated areas in hazmat suits.
"This is a huge exercise to walk in on," she said. "And it really has helped me to put it together and see everyone work."
The unit acquitted itself well in its evaluation. Of the more than 600 individual tasks on which it was evaluated, the U.S. Army North evaluators rated it fully qualified in every single one.
The 54th CST is made up of 18 Soldiers and four Airmen from the Wisconsin National Guard. The full-time unit's role is to support civil authorities when requested by providing an analytical capability to determine unknown substances using its mobile lab. The unit can rapidly deploy and provide medical, communications and technical support to civilian agencies in the event of a terrorist attack, emergency or other event that involves weapons of mass destruction, toxic industrial chemicals or natural disasters.