As U.S. troops pull out of Iraq, members of the Pennsylvania National Guard are turning their attention to conflicts elsewhere—including possible situations at home. As part of WHYY’s series “Back from Iraq,” this report focuses on an exercise at Fort Indiantown Gap where more than 500 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard were being retrained.Clouds of purple smoke float into the sky near a pile of rubble that’s topped by a school bus. This is the site of a simulated biological attack—complete with fake “victims.”
The people, who are being paid to pretend to be injured, have realistic fake wounds. One woman who looks like she has a piece of metal, shrapnel, lodged in her neck.
The National Guard members, wearing boots, helmets, and bright orange vests, could be forgiven for forgetting this isn’t the real thing. It certainly sounds real complete with a woman screaming and people jockeying to get help for their family members. While a helicopter passes overhead, some Guard members pull on protective suits.Major Mark Thomas says troops regulary train to head into contaminated places. He looks toward the rubble pile, simulating a stadium collapse.”We have the Pennsylvania CERF-P, which is a chemical, biological, radiological response force on site,” said Thomas. “Approximately 200 personnel that compose the CERF-P. And they provide urban search and rescue capabilities or extraction from a collapsed structure, mass medical care and mass decontamination.”As the U.S. pulls out of Iraq, many soldiers are heading home. Thomas says this training makes sure Guard members are ready for domestic missions.”We actually practice for what they call an ‘All Hazards’ capability,” said Thomas. “That could be a man-made collapse due to structural failure of a building, a collapse based on a terrorist attack or as a result of a terrorist attack, or through natural disasters such as an earthquake.”Since 2008, Staff Sergeant Justo Rivera, from Northeast Philadelphia, has served in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Being in the military we go where we’re needed and we do what we need to do.”Inside a tent, Guard members in protective suits treat the injured.
Away from the simulated chaos, in his office nearby, is Colonel Mark Ferraro, the Chief of Staff for the Joint Forces Headquarters, which is the headquarters for the entire Pennsylvania National Guard with Army and Air. Ferraro, who’s been in the military since 1981, says the Guard is better equipped than in the past.”We used to get hand-me downs. When I took the 56th to Iraq, the brigade and the soldiers in that brigade were probably one of the best-equipped brigades in the entire United States Army,” said Ferraro. “I hope under … with the dwindling resources, as we draw out of Afghanistan, we draw out of Iraq, and things slow down, that we continue that mindset and we don’t go back onto the shelf.”Right now there are 19,000 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard many of them have deployed three or four times in the last decade. Some are currently serving in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Kosovo. About 2,500 are expected to be deployed to Kuwait next year.Ferraro says over the next year or two the guard will be reshaped.”We will stay as an operational force but also I see a bigger role now also here in the homeland,” said Ferraro. “Whether it be to respond to some type of catastrophic event or something here in the state as simple as a snow storm, or the previous floods that we just had. But I still see the guard playing a full active role in contingency operations overseas.”Ferraro says for some younger members of the Guard—who have spent much of their time in Iraq and Afghanistan–the re-focus on homeland operations and on new confrontations will include picking up new skills.”We really didn’t use tanks in Afghanistan. We didn’t use tanks in Iraq,” said Ferraro. “So getting soldiers backs in their tanks, back on tank ranges, and honing their gunnery skills in a tank, is something we need to re-focus on. How we maneuver heavy armor forces on the battlefield—we haven’t had to do in Iraq because we were fighting a counter-insurgency. There are obviously potential threats out there: North Korea, Iran, who have that capability to fight in a conventional environment.”While members of the Pennsylvania National Guard learn the skills they’ll need for the future, Ferraro says it will be impossible to forget those who didn’t make it home.”But it’s evident that their sacrifice that they made was not made in vain because of the progress that has been made in Iraq both politically and militarily,”he said.Since September 11, 2001, 39 members of the The Pennsylvania National Guard have been killed in action—more than any other National Guard in the country.