34th CST shares information, experience during active duty mortuary affairs exercise

Soldiers assigned to the Virginia National Guard’s Fort Pickett-based 34th Civil Support Team support the Fort Lee-based 111th Quartermaster Company, 530th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion by training mortuary affairs Soldiers on the use of chemical detection equipment during the Joint Mortuary Affairs Centers’ Quick Reaction Test field training exercise of March 12, 2015, at Ft. Lee, Va. The event was proctored by the U.S. Army’s Test and Evaluation Command and is designed to develop, evaluate and refine tactics, techniques and procedures used during the operation of the newly fielded mortuary affairs contaminated remains mitigation site. (Photo by Capt. Andrew J. Czaplicki, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Soldiers assigned to the Virginia National Guard’s Fort Pickett-based 34th Civil Support Team support the Fort Lee-based 111th Quartermaster Company, 530th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion by training mortuary affairs Soldiers on the use of chemical detection equipment during the Joint Mortuary Affairs Centers’ Quick Reaction Test field training exercise of March 12, 2015, at Fort Lee, Va. The event was proctored by the U.S. Army’s Test and Evaluation Command and is designed to develop, evaluate and refine tactics, techniques and procedures used during the operation of the newly fielded mortuary affairs contaminated remains mitigation site. (Photo by Capt. Andrew J. Czaplicki, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

FORT LEE, Va. – Soldiers assigned to the Virginia National Guard’s Fort Pickett-based 34th Civil Support Team supportrd more than 39 Soldiers from the Fort Lee-based 111th Quartermaster Company, 82nd Special Troops Battalion by training mortuary affairs personnel on the use of chemical detection equipment during the Joint Mortuary Affairs Centers’ Quick Reaction Test field training exercise of March 12, 2015, at Fort Lee, Va.

U.S. Army mortuary affairs Soldiers perform duties similar to a civilian mortician in preparing remains for burial. In addition, they recover and collect remains—even those contaminated by chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons or materials.

“We received a request to support the Joint Mortuary Affairs Center,” said Capt. Thomas Valentine, survey team leader, 34th CST. “They needed [Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear] specialists to train and help during their field training exercise. The original request for CBRN specialists wasn’t able to be supported, so we got the call and we’re happy to help.”

During the exercise, the 34th CST was responsible for teaching the 111th Quartermaster Co. how to operate in a chemically contaminated environment. Specifically, they taught mortuary affairs Soldiers how to don and doff personal protective equipment, personnel and mass decontamination procedures, and how to use chemical detection equipment.

“Our core strength is CBRN, we practice this day in and day out, so that’s where we’ve focused our support,” Valentine said. “We’re helping them primarily with their detection equipment, but we also understand the stresses that working in that kind of environment can create. The suit alone is stressful, you lose dexterity, visibility and it gets hot after awhile too. We have a lot of experience with this and I think it makes us better able to instruct others.”

The exercise was proctored by the U.S. Army’s Test and Evaluation Command and is designed to develop, evaluate and refine tactics, techniques and procedures used during the operation of the mortuary affairs contaminated remains mitigation site.

“I’m glad we were able to reach out and find subject matter experts to get involved with this process,” said retired Col. Mark Valeri, test director, Joint Test Activity, U.S. Army’s Test and Evaluation Command. “They are providing that critical component in the process to help make this as real as we can to really test the process.”

Equipment for the mortuary affairs contaminated remains mitigation site was originally purchased in 2003 as an interim solution to meet the requirement for the mitigation, positive identification and final preparation for evacuation of contaminated human remains. But the capability development process didn’t get initiated until almost 10 years later when the JMAC proposed a QRT under the Joint Test and Evaluation Program to validate tactics, techniques and procedures. The QRT was approved March 2014.

“When we can get a subject matter expert into that process we can get critical feedback and better refine our tactics, techniques and procedures,” said Col. Darrell R. Gregg, director of the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command Joint Test Element. “Otherwise, this is just a check in the box, and that’s not what we’re looking for here.”

Results of this exercise will be used to update Army training doctrine, Gregg explained.

Valentine said that the exercise affords his CBRN specialists a rare training opportunity too.

“We got the opportunity to help problem solve some of the technical issues with the equipment that they were running into, we’ve tried to answer some of the problems that have come up, of course we don’t know everything, but we have put them in contact with the right people that have those answers,” Valentine said. “The off gas from the plastic tents were setting off some of the detection alarms, and our team had never thought of that being an issue. We also run into issues with some of the Reactive Skin Decontamination Lotion giving false positives on some of the equipment, so this was a great place to see the limitations of some of the equipment and now our team is better prepared.”

All services’ mortuary affairs personnel are initially trained on how to decontaminate remains, but they’ve never had the fiscal or training resources to actually codify the correct way to conduct this type of mortuary affairs operation. The exercise, said Gregg, is the best way to fine tune the procedures needed to execute this mission properly.

“These Soldiers have been incredibly professional and have taken to the  instruction quite well,” said Valentine. “It has been refreshing to work with these Soldiers and of course its always great to get hands-on equipment that we don’t normally get to use on the CST.”

“This is the first time we’ve gotten the CST involved and they’ve been doing a great job helping some of our mortuary affairs Soldiers correct their techniques, teaching them how to be safe while in their protective equipment and giving us recommendations on how to streamline the decontamination procedures,” said Kristin Rose, task leader for the MACRMS QRT. “They’ve also brought some of their detection equipment to show us different tools that we might want to look at incorporating into the equipment set, they’ve just been a great resource.”

The Fort Lee-based 111th QM Co. is one of two active duty mortuary affairs units in the U.S. Army, the lead agency for mortuary affairs for the Department of Defense. Both the 111th QM Co and its active duty sister unit, the 54th QM Co., also based at Fort Lee, have both deployed hundreds of Soldiers to Southwest Asia.

The 34th CST is federally resourced, trained and sustained and operates under the control of state leadership. The Adjutant General of Virginia may employ the 34th CST to support the state response under the direction of the governor or to support another state’s response under a supported governor.

“It’s been a really exciting experience, I’ve got to appreciate a completely different side of the Army that I never seen before,” said Spc. Paul Smith, CBRN specialist assigned to the 34th CST. “I’ve learned quite a bit about mortuary affairs and I’m glad I’ve had this opportunity to partner with our neighbors here at Ft. Lee.”