CAMP RIPLEY, Minn. — The Wisconsin National Guard’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and High Yield Explosives (CBRNE) Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP) participated in a dynamic emergency response training exercise in partnership with the Minnesota National Guard Aug. 23 to 27.
The Vigilant Guard Joint Regional Exercise Program is a National Guard Bureau and U.S. Northern Command initiative intended to strengthen cooperation between federal, state, local, civilian and military partners to improve readiness for emergency coordination, response, and recovery.
Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment (HHD) and the 457th Chemical Company, and the 273rd Engineer Company — both elements of the 641st Troop Command Battalion, 64th Troop Command — make up the Wisconsin Army National Guard component of the CERFP. Airmen of the 115th Fighter Wing complete the CERFP with medical and communications support from the Wisconsin Air National Guard.
Vigilant Guard provided an opportunity for the Wisconsin CERFP to train for CBRNE events, natural disaster response, and mass casualty incident management with hands-on, real-world scenarios alongside the Minnesota National Guard and civilian emergency response institutions, like the St. Paul Fire Department’s Minnesota Task Force One.
Lt. Col. Scott Harold Southworth, commander of the 641st Troop Command Battalion, acted as CERFP commander during Vigilant Guard. He emphasized how pivotal a role the collaborative nature of the training event plays in the readiness of the Wisconsin CERFP.
“Training in a multistate, multi-institutional scenario is essential because that’s the likely scenario where the CERFP will operate,” Southworth said.
“If and when the CERFP is called to duty, I expect that it would be a significant disaster that would require more than one CERFP, possibly the homeland response force, and definitely different agencies …and that requires a training program that involves multistate, multi-jurisdictional, higher level players,” Southworth continued. “Vigilant Guard offers us the ability to connect not only with institutions like the St. Paul Fire Department, but really work hand in hand with Minnesota CERFP.”
Master Sgt. Brent Voelker, operations noncommissioned officer-in-charge (NCOIC) with HHD, who acted as battle captain during Vigilant Guard, also spoke on the importance of the training for Wisconsin CERFP capabilities.
“The biggest thing is, as we say in the military side of the house, ‘train as you fight,’” Voelker said. “If we don't have those outside agencies, we don't understand the complexities they come with, or how we do things dealing with them and them dealing with us. I believe every quarter, somewhere in the nation, we do a Vigilant Guard. That's basically to ensure that we maintain those lines of communication as policy and procedure change due to things that happen throughout the world.”
“This year we actually have a unique opportunity where we get to work hand-in-hand with Minnesota's CERFP,” Voelker explained. “We can share our experiences and best practices between the two units and hopefully come out of this a better CERFP element.”
Southworth stressed that not only working with outside agencies, like in Vigilant Guard, but the infrastructure of the Wisconsin CERFP help to make it a stronger, readier, more capable force.
“I also want to stress — this is important to me — that beyond the training we get with other states or other emergency responders on the civilian side, the best part about the CERFP is the interoperability of Air Force and Army personnel working seamlessly together, bringing all of those military skills and those civilian talents into the CERFP enterprise,” he said. “That’s what makes us strong.”
457th platoon sergeant Sgt. 1st Class James Austin, NCOIC of the ambulatory decontamination lane during Vigilant Guard, put the skills of the Wisconsin CERFP, and its value to Wisconsin communities, into perspective.
“It's one team,” Austin said. “One can't work without the other. When you have a natural disaster, the last thing you want to happen is the same thing that happened at Hurricane Katrina. The late response, the uproar of the community going against the powers that be, and the powers that be trying to figure out, ‘Okay, what do we do to get this straight?’ But now we finally have something that's right on time. It’s a seamless step to get them closer to safety, and recovery, and get people their lives back."
Sgt. Jennifer Lazarski, a human resources NCO with HHD, and administration NCO during Vigilant Guard, captured what the CERFP means to her, as a Soldier who is a part of it.
“I think of it as something akin to Sept. 11,” Lazarski said. “When I look back, I wish I would have been able to help. I feel the same way about Hurricane Katrina. Those terrible disasters are why I joined and why I’m so glad to be part of a unit that can respond to those types of events. The events that people remember for the rest of their lives.”
Lazarski’s sentiment echoed throughout the unit.
“The most rewarding part I would say is knowing that what you're training on is something that is not only going to help somebody else, but it's going to help your family as well,” Austin said. “You know that when you're called up you're going to be helping American citizens. You want to be ready to help your fellow neighbor when disaster happens. That's what these Soldiers look forward to, getting ready to go out there when something happens and help their fellow Americans."
Spc. Benjamin Zier, a CBRN specialist with the 457th, agreed.
“We’re getting the job done,” he said. “At the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, you know that your job is to save people’s lives.”
“This is the reason I joined,” Lazarski said.” We want to help the United States and the CERFP is one of the best groups to be a part of. You feel like you’re helping the whole world. I know I can help when something bad happens, so we can be a part of history — to help when it really matters — and make a real difference.”
Southworth summed up what the Wisconsin CERFP — as a ready, willing, and dynamic force — means for the people of Wisconsin, and to the National Guardsmen who trained to serve in an emergency during Vigilant Guard.
“The people of Wisconsin depend on us to respond to federal missions — war,” Southworth said. “But they also depend on us to be there when they’re suffering. Whether it’s a major natural disaster or a terrorist attack, what we do here in the CERFP in a training environment like Vigilant Guard is preparing us for Wisconsin’s worst day. Because on Wisconsin’s worst day, that has to be the CERFP’s best day.
“If we do that right, we’re going to save people’s lives, we’re going to provide reassurance that things are under control, and we’re going to be supporting our friends, our neighbors, and our own families,” he continued. “In the CERFP enterprise, we are taking care of each other and taking care of our communities. And that is nothing short of a privilege that every member of this element takes very seriously.”
Staff Sgt. Alexander Henninger contributed to this news story.