The Soldiers were called to state active duty to support the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection's (DATCP) effort to combat the spread of the H5N2 virus which has affected hundreds of thousands of chickens and turkeys at several sites across the state.
Elements of the Wisconsin National Guard's Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, High Explosive (CBRNE) Enhanced Response Force Package, or CERFP, were responsible for decontaminating vehicles and equipment at the affected facility in Lake Mills. Civilian vehicles and farm equipment moved in and out of the facility on a daily basis as part of the cleanup, and CERFP Soldiers from the Hartford-based 457th Chemical Company decontaminated every vehicle that came out of the designated hot zone before allowing them to travel back into the community.
The team used military-grade pressure washers to spray vehicles and equipment leaving the poultry farm with water heated to 175 degrees Fahrenheit to remove any gross contaminants and begin the process of killing the virus. They also employed a disinfecting agent –Virkon – which kills the H5N2 virus on contact.
Donned in chemical suits and using a boom to keep contaminated water from running into the surrounding farm fields, the Soldiers worked top-to-bottom and front-to-back at 45-degree angles on every vehicle and sprayed the bed of each dump truck after they delivered their loads at the farm, Sgt. Parminder Singh, a chemical specialist with the 457th, explained. Before entering the "hot zone," each vehicle had to check in, turn off fans and air circulating units and tape and seal windows and doors.
When they returned to the decontamination area, Singh, and fellow Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers like Spc. Lacy Taylor, sprayed and disinfected the vehicles before allowing them to leave.
"This right here is basically your average 74D (chemical specialist) training," Taylor said of the unit's mission in Lake Mills. "You wash vehicles. You have a warm zone, a hot zone, a cold zone to decontaminate. A lot of it is just working together with people and just having a system of what to do."
Taylor said when she joined the military as a chemical specialist, she feared she would receive advanced training but then never be asked to employ her skills outside of training. Having the opportunity to conduct a real-world chemical mission was a rewarding one, she said.
Sgt. Chad Rynders, who enlisted into the 457th when the unit was initially established in 2007, agreed.
"This is the first time we've actually been called onto a mission to do something and actually perform," he said. "It just shows what we're actually capable of."
Rynders pointed out the National Guard's ability to scale its response to the needs of the state or domestic agencies it supports.
"It doesn't have to be mass personnel," he said. "It doesn't have to be a big attack of some sort. We can even respond to the smallest incident and still be able to assist and complete the mission."
In a chemical environment, whether it is as large as a train derailment or terrorist attack, or a smaller scale response, the Guard can tailor its force package to respond, he said.
Sgt. Cody Cantley, a Soldier with the 641st Troop Command Battalion, noted the same.
"I think it says a lot about the National Guard being able to respond to this mission as soon as they called us," Cantley said. "It helped reinforce that the CERFP is something that is needed, and they're not wasting money on us or time. This is something that they can actually rely on – that they can call on us and we'll be there with the right equipment and the right amount of people."
From a unit perspective, he said, the experience of conducting a real-world mission on which public health relied, will only help reinforce the importance of the unit's mission.
"Now this will really help remind our Soldiers that real things could happen and we could be called up at any time," Cantley said. "This will help re-ignite that flame that, ‘we need to do this. We need to do it right, and we need to be the best at it.'"
Knowing that their work served and protected their fellow Wisconsinites was even more rewarding, he said.
"It was an honor to partner with DATCP to fill a critical need for the State of Wisconsin as it continues to battle the spread of the H5N2 virus," said Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, Wisconsin's adjutant general. "Once again, the Wisconsin National Guard proved its versatility and that it was up to the task and ready to respond to our state's needs."
The response team arrived in Lake Mills April 20 to begin conducting decontamination operations. The Soldiers remained on-site until May 15, when their services were no longer required.