Michigan’s Homeland Defense Unit: 51st CST

Michigan National Guard's 51st Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team members, Army Sgts. Joesph Boesler and Nicholas Erridge, provide reconnaissance for their team during a civil support team exercise at U.S. Naval Air Station Key West, Fla., Feb. 25, 2015. The civil support team experienced multiple exercises led by U.S. Army North analysts, in preparation for an upcoming recertification requirement in April 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Denice Rankin/Released)

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The Michigan National Guard’s 51st Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team is one of only two MING units (the other is the counterdrug team) that will not deploy outside of the United States and its territories. The 51st CST, based at Fort Custer Training Center near Battle Creek, has a unique homeland security mission to respond to suspected chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) incidents in support of U.S. local authorities.  Upon call-up, the team will identify, assess, advise and assist local civilian authorities to mitigate real or potential threat from accidental, intentional or natural CBRN incidents.

Army 1st Sgt. Jason Baldwin joined the team April 2000. At that time, the unit was comprised of one-weekend-a-month, traditional National Guard “M-Day” Soldiers.

“I started out as a survey team chief and M-day,” said Baldwin.  “Originally there were 10 full time CST teams across the nation. After Sept. 11, [2001] Congress deemed every state and territory should have their own CST team.”

Thereafter, the balance of the CST’s stood up across the nation through a five-phase implementation.  The Michigan National Guard 51st Civil Support Team began and completed certification by the Department of Defense in 2002, during the third phase.

The team trains regularly away from home-station. In February, the 22-member Army and Air Guard team performed an air-load mission.  Upon arrival at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township, the 127th Logistics Readiness Squadron and 51st CST members palletized equipment and loaded four of the team’s eight emergency response vehicles and Guard members onto a C-17 aircraft.

The team flew to the nation’s southernmost point in Key West, Fla., to undergo technical proficiency exercises by analysts from U.S. Army North.  The exercise scenarios challenged the 51st CST’s response measures to suspected biological and radiological sources on Naval Air Station Key West and at a U.S. Naval facility on Saddlebunch Key.

Army Staff Sgt. Teriana Makarewicz headed up the decontamination corridor where the survey team processed through after exposure to suspected hazardous material.  Makarewicz serves as the administrative sergeant at home station.  In spite of 100 percent humidity and suited up in a fully enclosed protective suit, Makarewicz has an obvious appreciation for her job.

“It’s great to have an administration job and a tactical job as well that gets me out of the office,” said Makarewicz.

The team is staffed one deep for some of the positions. For this exercise, two members of the Wisconsin National Guard 54th Civil Support Team deployed with the 51st to supplement the team with a logistics NCO and a survey team member. Sgt. 1st Class Edwin Bonayon has served with the 54th CST as a “loggie” for three years and expressed the same passion for his job as those on Michigan’s team.

“I like that I’m helping people, you know, WMD isn’t a joke,” said Bonayon.  “I like the fact that I’m helping the people of Wisconsin.”

Army Capt. Victoria Allard is the section leader for the analytical lab system and serves as the team’s science advisor. The scenario that the Army North analysts created was a new experience for her.

“This was an unusual exercise because we had a liquid sample that contained radiation. That is definitely going to keep us on our toes,” said Allard. “It reminds us how we need to pay attention to details and not get tunnel vision.”

One of the vehicles the team brought was their unified command suite, which provides satellite phone and data connectivity and various modes of transmission capabilities.  A camera with live-feed allowed the operations center to monitor the survey team’s movements as they went down-range to detect the suspected CBRN hazard.

The exercises’ effectiveness was manifested by the team’s cohesion. Before each entry into a building, the team would rally in the operation’s center. Each section: command, operations, communications, administration/logistics, media/analytical and survey would brief their portion of the operation. Survey team leader, Army Capt. Ethan Eickelberg, briefed the survey team’s entry mission from start to finish and to make sure the team was on track, would ask a random survey team member to relay back the mission systematically and another to review emergency hand-signals.

Tech. Sgt. Ruel Taylor is a survey team chief for one of the CST’s two survey teams who suit up to enter the hot zone.  Taylor has been on the team for five years and experienced a new element of testing with this training exercise.

“We were forced to respond with a bare minimum of equipment and were out of our comfort zone,” said Taylor.  “We operated well though—when we left Selfridge it was below zero and now it’s in the 80’s with 100 percent humidity—we didn’t miss a beat.”

“The two different [exercise] venues created some unique challenges,” said 51st CST Deputy Commander, Army Capt. Ryan Davis.  “The footprint was a challenge because of the high tide we had to think about when setting up. However, the exercises were a great opportunity for our people in new positions. In two months we have our TPE [technical proficiency evaluation] so this was an opportunity to work with Army North evaluators and work on our core competencies and METL [mission essential task list].”

Army North recently realigned CST teams with new evaluation teams.  A different team of Army North analysts will now evaluate the 51st CST.

“This exercise lane is a first look for both our team and Jeff Taylor’s evaluation team.  We are very fortunate to have an experienced, knowledgeable, and professional team such as Mr. Taylor’s staff,” said 51st CST Commander Air Force Maj. Mark Sitterly.

For those just joining the 51st CST, it may feel like “school is never out.”  In addition to their military occupational and education schools necessary for promotion, the civil support team members must complete an 8-week civil support skills course at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., which covers basic hazardous material operations and chemistry.  This required guidance trains team members to interact with civil authorities. After completing the civil support skills course in Missouri, there is follow-on, position-specific course training with first year and second year requirements.

Sgt. 1st Class David Alexander is the reconnaissance non-commissioned officer and has been on the team for 13 years.  The February trip was his fifth air-load mission, but according to him, offered some unexpected obstacles.

“This was a different challenge logistically because we had to coordinate the use of non-organic vehicles to move our equipment,” said Alexander.

Factored into all the other team objectives, this was one more detail to take into consideration in the team’s emergency response mission.

According to Air Force Master Sgt. William Bennett, the team’s operations NCO, the CST has a liaison program based on emergency management districts, and civil support team members are responsible to interact with different agencies within their assigned district. When Michigan CST is not training, members reach out to Michigan local responder communities.

“For example, I’m assigned to Michigan State Police Region 6 emergency management district,” said Bennett.  “Next week I’ll be speaking at Kent County Local Emergency Management Committee about the 51st CST’s capabilities—what we have to augment their capabilities.”

Michigan’s Civil Support Team members carry their cell phones everywhere and understood before accepting the job, there is an “always-on-call” requirement.

Survey team member, Boesler’s comments could speak for the team, “If something real bad happens, we’ll be prepared.”


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