NEWS | March 8, 2022

34th CST, Counterdrug TF conduct joint training exercise

By Mike Vrabel | Virginia National Guard Public Affairs Office

Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen assigned to the Fort Pickett-based 34th Civil Support Team conducted a training exercise focusing on recognizing and identifying illicit drugs Feb. 16, 2022, at the Virginia Public Safety Training Center in Hanover County, Virginia.

Soldiers assigned the VNG’s Counterdrug Task Force were also on hand to observe the training, benefitting both units, according to Lt. Col. Lyndsey Hodgkins, the 34th CST commander. 

“The purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate CST capabilities and showcase Counterdrug capacities,” said Hodgkins. “This shared knowledge led to a better understanding and utilization of our assets. We have not trained together during my time on the CST. We designed this exercise around pharmaceuticals which allowed CD to identify a hazard they may encounter and request the CST as a follow on asset.”

“The CDTF and CST have similar capabilities and we support many of the same law enforcement agencies,” added Maj. Cari Kelso, commander of the Counterdrug Task Force. “The training conducted during this exercise is a perfect example of how our capabilities compliment one another. This exercise provides a safe environment where we can learn to identify indicators of illegal drug activity and ultimately better support our law enforcement partners.”

During the training exercise, CST survey teams made entry to a house suspected to contain drug labs. They were able to conduct reconnaissance surveys and identify mocked-up pharmaceutical production and distribution materials. They then collected samples of unknown substances for the CST’s scientists to positively identify, all while donning hazardous materials protection suits and focusing on safety procedures, something the Counterdrug team was able to assist with. 

“We also identified capability gaps which included personal protective equipment,” said Hodgkins. “CD is a tool that we will utilize as a reach back asset. The intelligence they have at their fingertips may assist us in preserving the safety of the team and the public.”

The cross-training between the CST and Counterdrug Task Force is especially important because the units could end up in real-world situations where both are responding to support law enforcement at the same incident. 

“They are a resource for us to request,” explained Hodgkins. “Integrating our capabilities makes for a more robust and safer response.”

“Our missions intersect in a couple areas. First and foremost we both support many of the same law enforcement agencies,” said Kelso. “Second, we have similar capabilities that we use to support law enforcement agencies. Cross-training is important because while we have similar capabilities, the CST has far more advanced capabilities than we do and it’s important for us to know where our operational limits end and where the CST’s begin. Additionally, cross-training allows the exchange of ideas that could ultimately lead to a future concept or solution to better support our law enforcement partners.”

Ultimately, the joint training is about multiplying each other’s capabilities and sharing knowledge and expertise to help hone each outfit’s support capabilities, as well as improve safety. 

“When they identify PPE shortfalls we can bridge the gap with providing future instruction on donning and doffing of PPE,” said Hodgkins. “Likewise if CD arrives first to an incident they have a better understand on what to provide the CST.”

The Counterdrug Task Force supports law enforcement agencies with investigative case support and substance abuse prevention support. The team supports various local, state and federal law enforcement agencies that support the Commonwealth’s efforts to counter illegal drug activity as well as other forms of illegal trafficking. Some of the agencies the Task Force supports include Virginia State Police, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area and  Homeland Security Investigations. Highly sought-after CDTF resources include criminal analysts and a UH-72 Lakota helicopter, both of which are used to directly support criminal investigations.

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.

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