First Responders at the End of the World

A nuclear device explodes in a Midwestern city. A hurricane ravages a susceptible coast. What happens next? Inside Vibrant Response, the U.S. Department of Defense’s worst-case scenario drill.

B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist, and book/music/art critic based in Chicago...

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The incandescent dispatches of the desperate burned through the fog, scrawled in urgent spray paint onto white bed sheets, seeming to flutter freely in the air: “The End of Days”—“Injured Children”—“We Need Food”—“Is This Living”—“✝ We Need a Priest”—“What Do You Got To Trade?” The floating cries briefly took my mind off the gruesome forms, took me back to the drive down to Indiana, over a hundred miles north up I-65, past the long, fat python bellies of blown tires; well before Indianapolis pulls herself up from the green; well before the towering windmills bridge the level plains of sky and field, to a sign just outside the city of Gary, visible heading southbound, white sans serif all caps on a black field: “HELL IS REAL.”

Our large grey Chevrolet van, its face smashed in like a pug dog, had led the convoy. Now we parked on the edges of the grievous sea of sunken homes alongside a white Ford Windstar mired in the water’s grassy edge, door ajar like a trauma victim’s eyes, revealing an interior faded and damp and almost laughingly macabre, thanks to the pair of tangerine bikini bottoms dangling from the post off the driver side door’s power lock. Outside, a scrap of blue and red tartan plaid hung ghastly from the van, pressed against the condensation-streaked back window by the rear wiper. On the roof sat a long metal pole, its rusted tips almost spearing my temple as I spun from the human forms sitting upon the lake, coming into focus through the fog.

By the time we had arrived in Hell—the rolling thunder of our trucks dying with pops and snarls, hisses, low rumbles, finally falling into lockstep with the eerie silence surrounding us—the sun had humped high enough above Indiana to resemble a dental lamp swaddled in dryer sheets, hot white fuzz obscured by mists both chemical and natural. The fog, opaque and ominous, stood biblically on the floodwaters, which lapped at the half-drowned homes of Boatman Road, each domestic ruin materializing in the reduced visibility like shipwrecks.


Finally the figures on the lake began to register, the heads lolled over the backs of the lawn chairs on the houses’ roofs, lazy but rigid, the arms hung stiffly at the sides, the legs and thighs joined by knees at a perfect angle, a right angle, an artificial angle … corpses, rigor mortis? No, they were too perfect for corpses, too plastic, too much like mannequins …

And not all Hells are real.

*

The best and worst Hells are man-made, a spectrum consisting of simulations for entertainment and training purposes on one end, and the most brutal committed atrocities of humanity on the other; our Hell, in Indiana, was firmly of the former. The sunken neighborhood of Boatman Road is just one of the myriad “venues” found in the sprawling Muscatatuck Urban Training Center (MUTC), an artificial ghost city-cum-post-apocalyptic wasteland, and the crown jewel of the Department of Defense’s Vibrant Response 14 drill.11And not even the most imposing/impressive/horrifying—the bridge collapse and subsequent train derailment takes that title.

Designed to sharpen and evaluate the DOD’s CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear) response capabilities, Vibrant Response 14 is gargantuan in scope: a 16-day dress rehearsal for the end of the world, featuring over 5,500 emergency personnel ranging from the municipal level to the state and federal governments. It operates across seven theaters throughout south-central Indiana under the aegis of Army North, the U. S. Northern Command tasked with the defense of the United States itself and coordinating disaster response. The 2014 iteration of Vibrant Response, assigned to the 46th Military Police Command National Guard unit of Sheboygan, Michigan, presented the aforementioned boots on the ground (BOGs) with that most stalwart of cataclysms, nuclear annihilation—specifically, in this case, a ten-kiloton device decimating a midsize (big enough for at least one Big Four professional sports franchise) Midwestern city.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Response Framework drives the response after such an emergency, beginning with the appointment of a civilian incident commander and local first responders (police, fire, ambulance). If local responders were overwhelmed—or, in the case of an event like Vibrant Response’s phantom blast, possibly destroyed, either physically or mentally—the state’s response teams, including the National Guard, would get involved. Disasters of a severity beyond a state’s capabilities fall to FEMA, which first looks to neighboring states for aid and provides the incident commander and governor of the afflicted state with a disaster control officer (DCO). This person serves as a liaison between the various parties—FEMA, the governor, the incident commander—and the DOD. First priority for any given task falls to local and/or private operators, e.g., using Walmart’s infrastructure to move supplies rather than the Army’s, and it is the DCO’s job to ensure that all of these avenues are explored before seeking military answers—only when the task is simply too grand are the armed forces (or others that fall under Title X of the United States Code)22Including the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard, as well as the “uniformed services,” which includes commissioned members of NOAH and the National Health Service along with the aforementioned armed forces. called in. The National Response Framework is why Vibrant Response confronts something so seemingly atavistic and fustian and conventional-war-style as a nuclear bomb: only horror on that inconceivable a scale, an ultimate worst-case scenario, could necessitate the use of Title X forces.

Title X forces are used only in a supporting manner, to buttress civilian response—the goal of the DOD in such situations is never the assumption of and ascension to command, but to put its resources, expertise, and capital—all of which dwarf state and local agencies, and even some Federal ones—at the incident commander’s fingertips. The domestic responsibilities of armed forces are easy to forget, but to see the leviathan mobilizing with the intent to aid and not kill shows the other side of martial force.


I was in Indiana to see the escutcheon become a stretcher: to see how the ideals we consider intrinsic to the American spirit—a kind of deep, foundational gameness, an ability to overcome, to outwit, and never leave another outside the confines of our City on the Hill, against the walls of which disaster may lick, but never fully breach—may be revealed. In that way, Vibrant Response is a flexing of our Ragnarok muscle: the purposeful inching up to peer over the walls that separate society from bedlam, a thin bulwark the mere thought of whose failure can render one paroxysmal with savage fear.

Just as the drill uniquely tests American values, it does so in uniquely American ways. The 5,500 personnel, 1,385 vehicles and trailers, 10 helicopters, one enormous false city and one real city falsely destroyed, could only be born here, the ultimate expression of our simultaneous obsessions with disaster and scale, a Hollywood-quality doomsday arriving at, and serving secretly as, the climax of Michael Bay season. The made-up grounds of Muscatatuck are strewn with the crumpled remains of motor vehicles; clothing clings to everything, sits upon the ground like puddles after a driving rain, hangs from the trees like haints; there are bicycles nestled in branches, stop signs clung to the grotesque plastic hooks of charred strollers like fruit bats, an antique wheelchair lies on its side in a field. Smokers pour ominous clouds from the hollow eye sockets of buildings, from the open cavities of panel trucks. Victims wander the streets, dead-eyed, dirty, some raspberry-faced with radiation burns, others with legs chewed into nearly unrecognizable masses of pulp, marrow and sinew and striated muscle. All of this is scored by the low rumble of trucks, the banshee wail of sirens, the distant chop of Black Hawk helicopters.

As an observer, there was something both sacrosanct and grotesque about it. The unimaginable notion that all of this could one day become real—unlike most of our modern Armageddon porn—was expressed only rarely (always following an interjection of “God forbid” or something along those lines, in turn followed by the possible real-world iterations/implications/prognostications), and even then only by those in command. But there was a definite avoidance of evoking reality too much, as if in fear of the cataclysm’s conjuring. The plaintive screams of the victims, ignored as our convoy awaited the official beginning of the drill, underlined—albeit disconcertingly—the inherent falsity of it all.

After Hurricane Katrina, Boatman Road was submerged under supervision, to assess what happened and what went wrong in that response; could the MUTC and its six fellow training areas prevent a similar disaster, or are they the most cinematic money pit yet?

*

Stay with me here while I fly down my embed point’s color-coded chain of command flow-chart. At the top in the Michigan-denoting blue box is TF4633The operation as a whole is dubbed Task Force 46, TF46 in martial acronymic fashion. and Major General Francisco. From there we follow the first arm of the horizontally squashed octopus down to the green (Alabama) boxed TFOPS, led by the 31st Chemical Brigade out of Northport, Alabama, across the river from Tuscaloosa. Under the 31st’s command is the 107th Engineer Battalion, from Ishpeming, Michigan, which lies completely outside the oven mitt on the Upper Peninsula. And inside the 107th, one finds the 208th chemical company, from Springville, Alabama—the unit with whom I rode in.

The 208th operated out of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Jennings, a militarized Jennings County 4H Fairground in North Vernon, the parking lot filled with convoy vehicles and the air with the diesel white-noise hum of generator-lit base life. The Title X denizens of FOB Jennings had moved in like hermit crabs: the snack stand became the mess, camp offices became the home of the mayor (who was in charge of the logistics of the FOB, including keeping track of all the people on base, which, with my arrival, meant one more), the only solid, non-county-fair-looking structure being the Jennings tactical operations center (TOC). I spent my two nights in Indiana in barn five, its massive three-mouthed air conditioner reducing me to shivers.


In the Jennings parking lot I met Staff Sergeant Christopher Davis, my personal liaison to the apocalypse. SSG Davis worked in the Jennings PAO with SSG Sandra Lucas, and was pulling double real-world duty as both my guide in the field and on base and as a reporter on assignment himself, tasked with profiling the 208th for Alabama Guardsman, published by the Alabama National Guard. A loquacious man of military bearing—from his athletic frame to his wire frame glasses to his high and tight haircut—SSG Davis spoke with a mellifluous Alabama accent, dripping like syrup and hiding the echoes of a stutter. When not answering my many questions or patiently translating military life for civilian ears, he’d tell stories—about standing tall as rockets buzzed his position; about seeking, via tactical spotlights, the quicksilver flashes of poisonous snakes carving lucent s’s in the desert sand while on deployment as an MP in Iraq and Afghanistan; about Napoleon’s great love for Josephine (he is a high school history teacher by trade); about the shockingly good Chinese restaurant in the one-stoplight Florida town—a golf swing from Alabama, he told me—where he and his wife live. He was the kind of man who can—and did—refer to me as “hoss,” and come across completely sincere. With SSG Davis by my side, I would be embedded with the 208th, waking with them at 0500 before rolling into MUTC.

*

Vibrant Response operates on two planes: one real and one fake. While the nuclear detonation and ensuing disasters that ostensibly brought us here were not real, the command and logistical challenges of moving thousands of people and over 75,000 short tons of equipment most definitely were; so, too, was my presence, and the need to keep tabs on other complicating factors, such as potentially dangerous weather conditions. Simple as it may seem to distinguish events stemming from the play-acted eradication of a Midwestern city from those present and concrete and right in front of your face, the truth of the matter is that both aspects of the drill mingle freely and frequently.

A pair of code words helps cut through the confusion: “notional” when it pertains to the drill, and “real world” when it does not. For example: My presence at MUTC needed to be explained to various interviewees as real world, since notional “journalists” also roam the sites; when a sexual assault was reported as happening in TF46, its notional nature was quickly and repeatedly established. (This may seem in somewhat poor taste, but I found it reassuring that a simulated sexual assault was actually being dealt with—a marked improvement over the ostensible “do nothing, pretty much” SOP that preceded it. See also: stories in The Military Times, USA Today, and myriad other sources, as well as the Service Women’s Action Network position for the problematic application of military justice with regard to sexual assault and rape.)

This blending, while unavoidable, is also beneficial: providing real world obstacles to test infrastructure even beyond the taxing demands of nuclear fallout. And everything is being tested, even those areas of a full-on military response one may not automatically think of. Take the public affairs office—ordinary men and women who could one day receive a call and have, sitting upon their operating table, a patient challenging to even the most jaded and professional of spin doctors—who not only needed to take care of me and any other real world requests, but also set up notional websites, Twitter feeds, and other modern media organs. While I was there, they filmed a notional news promo and handled real world VIPs, including high-ranking generals and foreign officials who came to partake in the unique knowledge only something like Vibrant Response can provide sans actual tragedy.

Public affairs was part of the TF STB (Special Troops Brigade), one of five major subsets of TF46—as a whole a federal Command and Control CBRN Response Element (C2CRE), the enterprise Vibrant Response is meant to test. Here’s the C2CRE’s alphabet soup structure: At the top is TF46 itself, run by the 46th MPs and under the direction of Major General Burton Francisco. Below the major general are five task force subsets, TF Operations (TF OPS), TF Aviation (TF AVN), TF Logistics (TFLOG), TF Medical (TF MED), and the aforementioned TF STB. Operations controls troop movement and the boots on the ground, while Aviation handles the helicopters. Logistics, unsurprisingly, looks after all logistical aspects of TF46, both personnel and equipment, while medical needs not covered by medic units in TFOPS go to TFMED. Finally, TF STB, in addition to the public affairs officers (PAOs), included other special categories which did not fit neatly into OPS, including communications, military police, and intelligence.

In the event of an apocalyptic scenario like the one notionally faced in Indiana, this is the brain and body DOD would theoretically place at the discretion of the civilian response efforts: a fleet, well organized, thoroughly drilled mechanism designed specifically to guide us through our greatest fears. Few things are as America—and as thoroughly, dick-swingingly American—as our armed forces. Pitting the great machine, the fruits of the most productive and fertile military-industrial complex in history, against existential, world-ending nightmares … there’s something romantic about it. Perhaps one can even find comfort in that forest of acronyms and flowcharts—proof that, here, look at all they have thought of! planned out! we are safe


This is not, after all, a conference seminar meant to placate, nor a pamphlet distributed to middle-schoolers (Make a plan. Prepare a kit. Be ready. Tell your family). This is for the people on the ground, the majority of whom are National Guardsmen, our first option when ineffable disaster strikes, and our best chance against the end of the world—or at least as fine a facsimile as the federal government can buy.

*

With the sun still sunk beneath the cornfields that served as the area’s slotted green backdrop, the 208th Chemical Company began the load-up for their convoy, which consisted primarily of transport trucks with flat, tall cabs—resembling a herd of chasmosaurs or, perhaps, particularly large and ugly mahi mahi—as well as a handful of Humvees and the silver conversion van. Following the yellow route to the MUTC, the convoy seemed too big for its surroundings; thundering slowly down county highways, past endless cornfields tall enough to obscure the van and numerous homesteads that dot the fields like flotsam in a verdant sea, I was struck by the unusual nature of it, this massive drab line carrying an authoritative-bordering-on-intimidating air, yet stocked with good-natured guardsmen, people who spend their days as rural deputy sheriffs or in steel mills—who would charm anyone, in that particular Southern way, through their combination of Godly hospitality and blasphemous gallows humor, on their way, ostensibly, to do whatever they could to save lives, without a firearm or round in the entire caravan. It will not be the career military member or even the active duty solider—what we instinctively think of when we think of the Army—who will respond to disaster. No, it will be someone a shade closer to the police and firefighters and EMTs already on the ground, denizens of a world closer to those of the victims to whose aid they’re coming.

The convoy rolled into Muscatatuck, its borders demarcated by the broken and abandoned vehicles serving as sign posts along the road. We drove past the beige façade and empty windows of a United States Embassy, past apartment complexes belching chemical smoke and trees dripping with wraiths. We pulled to a stop beside Boatman Road, where the initial disconcerting feeling I felt staring at the rigid, phony dead was pushed aside, as it would be by the guardsmen, by an adherence to procedure and professionalism—in this case, SSG Davis and I tweaking camera settings to account for the fog—and waited, staring out across the vast wasteland that had once been home to the Muscatatuck State Development Center (colloquially referred to as the insane asylum, mental institution, etc.).

Across the macabre lagoon sat the urban core, a collection of apartment buildings and residential homes, a subway, chapel, and five-story hospital, and a destroyed parking garage, an impressive avatar for the real world. What it looked like, really, in spacing if not design, was a college campus—a little too sparse for a real-world city, but genuinely disconcerting in its empty, cadaverous look, dressed up with bed-sheet bulletins and crowned with smokers. Our operations area would be less urban, consisting primarily of a trailer park, oil refinery, and electrical substation—a rural/industrial landscape bordered on its far end by a prison and soccer stadium.

We were shook from our startled reconnaissance by the howling of sirens; piercing through the fog like adjule eyes, the angry whites and cherries of firetrucks and ambulances rounding the water, driving somberly past at eardrum-quivering proximity. The trucks would roll through periodically, their wails constant to the point of saturation, until the sirens were nothing more than background noise, incapable of rousing the fears they once did—a defanging of stressors that was, of course, the reason for their presence here.

Orders received, the 208th, along with the 1171 Medical Company of Ypsilanti, Michigan, and Battle Creek’s 460th Chemical Company, moved to our operations area, the aforementioned outskirts. Bounded by the city to our east, the prison and stadium to our south, shanty towns to our north, and the rural expanse of Indiana to our west, this sparse and fearful wedge, which the MUTC designates as its industrial/municipal district, district six, was to be our own personal slice of Abaddon for the day.

All three units were tasked with the primary mission of clearing the district of survivors and fatalities, assessing the threats, locating the “displaced civilians”—read: victims—and decontaminating them, then moving them to the proper medical and staging facilities. Those three components were split amongst the 460, 208, and 1171, respectively, and SSG Davis and I would get to bear witness to an entire operation, and see, at the most personal level, our hope against horrors.

*

Beep … beep … beep … beep … beep …

This sound would be easily lost among the ubiquitous guttural ambience of engines and generators and the dull knife of the sirens had SSG Davis and I not followed the Gator utility vehicle it emanated from away from the laundry complex where the 460th, 208th, and 1171st were stationed, down a gravel path past a megalith of rubble, shipping containers-cum-obelisks, and an abounded train car, to the mouth of the trailer park. The noise was coming from a smallish box atop the Gator, and it was the most important sound in the entire drill; this small beep carried in it more weight than all of the fire trucks and helicopters combined, because if it stopped beeping and began to wail, that would mean the chemical detector had found … something.


Soundtracked by the metronymic everything-is-OK alarm were ghostly figures straight out of science-fiction nightmares heading down range into irradiated district six: ill-fitted white bags whose approximate human shapes only made them more disturbing.

These were members of the 460th, insulated from the deadly radioactive mien they were notionally facing, and performing reconnaissance duties in district six, including identifying potential hazards and helping civilians. Their alien appearance was due to their level C personal protective equipment (PPE), i.e. hazmat suits, which, in the case of level C, consisted of hooded chemical resistant suits, chemical resistant gloves and boots, half masks, and air purifying respirators. At first sight, they were legitimately unsettling, skinless beings with their eyes locked behind glass and their mouths and noses now a black complex of plastic and hoses, feet of sea foam and hands of squid ink, wrists and ankles bound in yellow tape.

I would become as desensitized to the suits as I was all the other terrifying stimuli of Vibrant Response. They were necessary for anyone heading down range—into the areas irradiated—and in the decontamination units, and did not only look menacing, as the high sun and upper 80s wreaked havoc on those in them; on the day before my arrival, Hell’s heat had claimed a number of real-world victims, and at the first sign of more to come today, the exercises would be postponed for two hours to allow for hydration, meals, and rest.

It seemed to me that the members of the 460 would be particularly at risk, taking their suits deep into the radioactive heart of district six. While there, their missions would be twofold.

“Our job is basically, we’re sending a couple teams down,” Second Lieutenant Melissa Rennucci told me and SSG Davis. Everything about 2nd Lt. Rennucci, from her crisp, informative demeanor to the tight, perfectly delivered explanations of her and her charge’s orders, was voltaic; she seemed to me to possess a regal bearing which belied her junior officer’s ranking—had you put her and more senior officers in a room, sans rank insignia, I’d think her the top brass—a notion that was later validated, unprovoked, by SSG Davis. “We’re going to find if there are any other hazards in the area—that could include any chemicals, any TICS and TIMS44Toxic industrial chemicals/Toxic industrial materials—and once we find that, we are going to see if their are any other casualties down there, and bring them back to safety.”

The debridement of district six could only be achieved by first identifying the various hazards, which, for a CBRN recon unit, are as ubiquitous and invisible as the very air that through their purifiers they breathe.

TICS and TIMS are not the only dangers the 460th would face, and they would be responsible for any other hazards as well, including pinning down the radiological threat. “We are going to try to mitigate any risks, if there are any.” 2nd Lt. Rennucci said. “We will find out and identify any potential hazards that may be there so that we can make it a safe area … If we did find some type of contamination, let’s say, we would actually take samples of it, and we have equipment that can identify what it may be. We can find out with liquid or gas; we can find out the presence, what the radiation is, as well, if it’s uranium, plutonium whatever. So each survey team that goes down has all this different equipment that will go with them, because we have all these different things that we can detect like upper and lower explosive limits in the air.”

Once the evaluation and mitigation of the hot zone was complete, then the 460th could move on to the most important aspect of their mission—the retrieval of survivors and the dead. Displaced civilians come in two sweeping varieties, ambulatory, i.e., capable of walking on their own power, and non-ambulatory. The latter were removed from the scene via sled, a metal stretcher with a two-wheeled axle on chest-high legs at its center which looks like an amusingly lazy LEGO creation but is, in fact, a sophisticated, easily portable system able to fully and safely restrain victims and allow for rapid movement across inhospitable terrain.

Whether on sleds or their own two feet, those found by the 460th among the empty husks of what SSG Davis, through personal experience, ventured were re-purposed FEMA trailers and the Muspelheim of the oil refinery would end up in front of the abandoned laundry building, where the 208th and decontamination awaited them.

On the dirt path between the two, a bikini top sat flattened and sullied, like a conjoined jellyfish.

*

As a real-world disaster is around the clock, so, too, is a notional one, and the constant stress and fatigue of the real deal cannot be simulated if you’re getting a good night’s sleep. Every TOC in TF46 operated 24 hours a day, including the main TOC at Camp Atterbury. A National Guard training camp, Atterbury’s residential rows lined with khaki, olive-roofed houses served as host of the main tactical operations center for the entirety of Vibrant Response; all notional and real-world tracking and decisions took place here. The morning after my roughly 17-hour embed with the 208th, I made the trip from FOB Jennings to Atterbury for a tour of TF46’s TOC from Lieutenant Colonel William Humes of the 46th MPs.

The TOC looks like they do in the movies, albeit not as romantic—uniformed personnel sitting at rows of desks, laptops and cups of coffee before them. At the front of the TOC stood a variety of screens, which were being used to project various maps, mission data, live TV news, and weather conditions. Weather tracking is another notional/real-world obligation: it would affect the path of the nuclear plume in the drill, and of course must be monitored for the storms of the Midwestern summer that could provide real danger to the BOGs.


LTC Humes gave me a brief overview of every TF in the room, beginning with the PAOs, who occupied a little quadrangle of desks right inside the front door. The PAOs were busy going through photos that had been shot the previous day, and showed me their notional websites and Twitter feeds, as well as the TV spot they had been filming with Major General Francisco while I was at MUTC. Next to the PAOs was another subset of TF STB, Intelligence. In the case of a civilian emergency, intelligence would gather information on the operating area just as they would in combat; discovering that a bridge was out, for example, or which roads are un-passable, or where looting had been spotted (looters or other criminal elements, by the way, would be handled by local law enforcement, as it is something of a crime for the military to fire on US citizens). In the case of a nuclear bombing, intelligence would also be tasked with discovering who perpetrated the attack, and if other attacks were forthcoming.

The majority of the TOC was given over to TFOPS, TFAVN, and TFMED, an entirely notional unit of medial enterprises that had never left home in Alabama. The communications center, due to lack of space, was in an air-conditioned tent outside the main TOC building, while TFLOG, with its massive responsibilities, had a room of its own in an adjacent building. Both of these satellite TOCs had liaisons sitting in the central command.

The 46th will be relinquishing command of Vibrant Response, LTC Humes told me, and returning to its command/control duties for military police. While daunting, LTC Humes and the 46th seemed not only up to challenge but excited by it, which can truly be the only emotional state that could rend success from impossible terror. The excitement lay, I gathered, in the mutable nature of disaster—“With civil actions, everything is in the air,” he told me, in opposition to the more rigid structure of traditional combat—but also in the knowledge that they could serve their country and its citizens in a tender, personal way; that they could comfort and heal rather than just retaliate and avenge.

*

William M. Arkin, writing for Gawker, points out the obvious absurdities in the military practicing a scenario built around, say, nuclear devastation—a rather romantic and remote disaster, albeit among the most pressing imaginable—rather than the catastrophes Title X forces are likely to face, amongst them hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes … the whole dread panoply of Gaia gone wild.

Using the 2015 version of VR (one year after the one I’m detailing here) as his jumping off point—in which Kansas City, Missouri, is nuked by a terrorist group known as “El Zahir”—Arkin lays out his case against such apocalyptic ends being met with military means:

I’ve heard all of the arguments over the years as to why these exercises are important: the military should prepare for the worst, that by practicing military-civil relations this is the way to preserve civilian control, and, most perniciously, that there is no harm.

Arkin’s argument is that by always focusing on End of the World scenarios, we waste time, money, and, perhaps most importantly of all, precious thought, consideration, and planning on playing Michael Bay. He goes on:

But ten years ago Hurricane Katrina exposed the real life danger of a government focused on the extreme at the expense of the expected. FEMA was shown to be a patronage-led amateur hour and the Department of Homeland Security was out to lunch on a terrorist watch that was redundant with everything the intelligence community and the FBI was already doing.

There is, in essence, a finite amount of time between any given disasters to ensure that we are ready to handle them; it would stand to reason that, while preparing for the worst case machinations of humanity is not an entirely un-prudent use of those precious days, it would be, from a probability standpoint, not the most practical or efficient, the drilling which could theoretically save the most lives. There is, too, the dread notion that this is all merely the Apocalypse Machine winding up, the old politics of fear being used not only to protect citizens but squeeze cash from them as well.

While the sunken domiciles of Boatman Road are an obvious response to the failure in New Orleans, the fact that the government was once again preparing for nuclear devastation rather than natural begs the question: are we preparing for the right end?

In a recent horrifying New Yorker feature, Kathryn Schulz profiled true impending doom: the inevitable loosing of the Cascadia subduction zone fault line, an invisible first cut—running from outside Cape Mendocino, California, to Vancouver Island—of a violent surgery which will rend the Pacific Northwest. Schulz described the immense power that is to be unleashed by the unthinking machinations of home’s floating shell:

When [not, one notices if] the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries.

Tsunamis will flood the northwest and Japan, a great cataractal tongue devouring the land and the pathetic constructs of those who live on it, and the result will make Katrina—much less Boatman Road—look like a mere tidal pool.

“Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast,” Schulz quotes FEMA Region X (the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, basically) director Kenneth Murphy as saying.

All of which is to say, this is not only The End of the World, true, real Hell, but practically a scientific inevitability.

So why are we worried about nuclear bombs in Indiana?

*

The walking dead55As one of the 208th called them. come shuffling in, faces streaked in carmine, clothes in dirt, shuffling and dragging and hung across sleds; they cry out in the distance, kept warily apart from the unaffected, the safe, and as they are waved in, a timid flock, they lurch disconcertingly towards help. Tainted in notional radiation, we are at the part of the drill where the victims, having been located, are finally aided. Help consists of two long lanes of tents, sitting atop a great, clear, plastic tarp, upon which is placed gridded floor paneling and berms. It’s called an MCD—mass casualty decontamination—and it would be the key component of any CBRN response. Under the direction of Captain Michael Johnson, the 208th was hard at work assembling the MCD when SSG Davis and I had returned to our embed unit after observing the 460’s reconnaissance. “We’re able to [decontaminate] a great number of causalities more quickly and properly than any other military assets that’s out there,” Cpt. Johnson said, his low voice easy to lose amongst the constant tumult of DOD operations.


The foundation prevents the contaminated water the MCD produces—and there is a lot of it—from soaking into the ground. It’s instead diverted via sub pumps to massive orange bags the guardsmen called blivits, which swell like mosquito bellies with 1,200 gallons of contaminated water apiece, and are then emptied off to the side, leaving, in theory, almost no ecological footprint. There were two lanes in the 208th’s MCD, ambulatory and non; the ambulatory lane’s tent was divided by a white plastic partition into male and female sides, while a series of rollers allowed sledded suffering to be rolled through the non-ambulatory side, a casualty conveyor belt. Running at full capacity, the lanes could handle roughly 40 ambulatory (walking on their own power) people per hour, with the non-ambulatory number halved.

Each lane consisted of three sections: one for undressing (the clothes are cut off in the non-ambulatory lane) section; one for washing and rinsing; and one for monitoring, where radiological scans would assure every person was suitably clean. From here, the survivors were passed to the 1171st.

“We are a medical organization,” 1171st Captain Tim Finley said. He had the body of one of those semi-tall, not-too-thin types who work in running stores and have actual singlets to race 10Ks in, and his black, angular sunglasses completed the look. “We come with EMTs, doctors, nurses, physicians’ assistants, a social worker. Basically our task is to set up a treatment area on the back end of the decontamination lane so that displaced civilians can come through and if they have any medical issues, we can render a small amount of care and get them staged to get transported to a reintegration area or a higher echelon of medical care.”

The 1171st’s treatment areas consisted of an array of tents abutting the decontamination lanes, with pocketed bandoliers of medical equipment labeled by type of injury. This is where the triage would take place, assessing the displaced civilians’ medical condition and tending to their needs accordingly.

(The dead, for their part, are left until the living can be processed, then go through a similar decontamination/identification/evacuation process.)

“The goal is to get them to a civilian medical facility,” Cpt. Finley said, a simple objective whose complexities, and time sensitivity, require an orchestral response. “It’s a big joint effort, between the incident commander and the transportation officer. The transportation officer specifically will help coordinate civilian assets, federal assets; the National Guard, active components, so we have all these elements here on site today. You’ll see civilian ambulances, you’ll see National Guard helping out with military vehicles—we have a couple ambulances we can use—it’s a real joint effort out here.”

Most visually stunning were the Army’s air evacuation capabilities, which were being put through their paces at Vibrant Response as well; a Black Hawk sat in the field between our operations area and Boatman Road, blades spinning in whining wait, matte black and far larger on the ground than above your head. Another helicopter had brought with it Major General Francisco and a swarm of PAOs, out to visit the troops and film a notional news report. When I asked him about the Army’s preparedness should an event like this actually happen, he responded with the kind confidence and lack of hesitation expected in a two-star general.

“There is no doubt that if something were to happen—God forbid—the Army would be ready.”

The 460th, 208th, and 1171st looked ready, the lone hitch in the great saving machine seemingly coming from the heat casualty stoppage. Only when I was back inside the silver van on the way out of Muscatatuck did I find out that, in the 208th’s eyes at least, the exercise had been an incredible disappointment. “That was about the slowest we’d ever done it,” SSG Robert Johnston said. “The worst we’d ever looked.” This, it seemed, was chalked up to it being the Alabama unit’s first time working with the Michiganders, and it could take weeks, maybe even months, SSG Davis told me, for units who had never met before, much less worked together, to mesh efficiently; add to that the cultural barriers, and the fact that guardsmen only run through these sorts of drills—though not on this scale, obviously—about once every quarter, and the roots of SSG Johnston’s anger, as well as the ostensible necessity of Vibrant Response, become apparent. It speaks to something—professionalism on their part, or ignorance on mine, but assuredness on the Army’s side regardless—that I had had no idea something was off until someone told me about it.

A few days later, SSG Davis called me and informed me that the a day or two after, the three units had gone out again and completed a similar mission—albeit with the tasks shuffled—in half the time.

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