RICHMOND, Va. –
The Virginia National Guard’s Fort Pickett-based 34th Civil Support Team was evaluated as trained and mission capable after a Training Proficiency Evaluation Nov. 16 and 18, 2021, in Henrico County, Virginia and at Defense Supply Center Richmond, Virginia. The evaluation was conducted by U.S. Army North, which supervised the exercise and validated the unit’s level of readiness.
The mission of the 34th CST is to support civil authorities in a domestic chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive incident, and the evaluated tasks included deploying the team, establishing communications and medical support, conducting survey, technical decontamination and analytical functions as well as conducting interagency coordination.
“The mission sets of the 34th CST are complex and require a high degree of technical expertise,” said Brig. Gen. James W. Ring, the VNG Director of the Joint Staff. “The performance by the men and women of the 34th CST during this TPE reflects their individual and collective readiness to conduct complex operations. They demonstrated that they remain ready to deploy at short notice in support of local, state or federal requirements.”
During the TPE, which is usually conducted about every 18 months, the CST was evaluated during two full-scale training exercises, responding to a scenario involving a mock chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive threat. The scenario spanned both days of the event, involving a notional suspect’s weaponized devices and materials as well as the mock suspect’s labs. During the exercises, the CST conducted reconnaissance and sample-collection missions, analyzing collected substances to determine the severity of the hazard and the appropriate next steps, all under the watchful eyes of ARNORTH evaluators.
The success of the evaluation boiled down to dedicated training, as well as hard work bringing along team members who had not participated in a TPE before, according to Lt. Col. Lyndsey Hodgkins, the 34th CST commander.
“We transitioned 45% of our personnel since our last TPE,” said Hodgkins. “However, we came together very well, assisting with tasks carried by service members who were new to the team or vacant positions. We scheduled and executed two hasty training events which allowed for new personnel to train with seasoned personnel and refine processes. This also allowed us to identify and fill gaps prior to our external evaluation.”
The 22-member CST is comprised of several different sections, including the survey team, medical personnel and communicators. According to Hodgkins, making sure each section stayed on the same page was something that took practice ahead of the formal evaluation, but ultimately paid off.
“Our biggest challenge was synchronizing the sections of the team,” she said. “We overcame this by conducting regular mission briefs and back briefs to ensure everyone was tracking and had a common operating picture. This was praised by ARNORTH at our formal after-action review.
“We prepared for this event during monthly FTXs and daily maintenance,” Hodgkins added, emphasizing her team’s hard work leading up to the TPE. “This was evident with the team’s steadfast personnel readiness and 100% of critical CBRN equipment fully mission capable.”
Hodgkins praised both the tutelage of more senior team members as well as the hard work by those more new to the CST.
“The team responded very well to the stress of this external evaluation. It was fairly transparent,” said Hodgkins. “The expertise of our senior team members guided the actions of our junior team members. The new generation of 34th CST members, like CBRN technicians Sgt. Ethan Vass and Sgt. Samuel Dooley, displayed confidence and ingenuity. Coupled with the calm leadership displayed by Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martin and Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Baldwin, it set the team up for “no fail” mission success.”
The 34th CST is divided into six sections: command, operations, communications, administration/logistics, medical/analytical and survey. Each team member completes between 500 and 900 hours of specialized training during their first year of assignment and continues advanced training throughout their tenure with multiple agencies including the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the National Fire Academy, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The team’s primary response area includes a 300-mile radius from its home station at Fort Pickett and stretches as far north as Pennsylvania and as far south as South Carolina. They maintain personnel on standby at all times, can deploy an advance team within 90 minutes of notification and the main body deploys within three hours.
The unit’s assigned transportation includes a command vehicle, operations trailer, a communications vehicle called the unified command suite which provides a broad spectrum of secure communications capabilities, an analytical laboratory system vehicle containing a full suite of analysis equipment to support the complete characterization of an unknown hazard and several general purpose vehicles. The CST normally deploys using its assigned vehicles, but it can be airlifted as required.