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MI National Guard practices nuclear disaster response

Blackhawk helicopter photo
Capt. Brian Anderson
Michigan National Guard
In this August 2014 photo, Michigan National Guard troops signal a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter to conduct a simulated medical evacuation.

The Michigan National Guard has been training for conditions that might accompany a nuclear explosion this week.

America’s armed forces exist for two main reasons: to defend its citizens and to provide humanitarian relief. It takes a lot of training to wage war and keep the peace. This week, the Michigan National Guard has been thinking about what its troops would do in the event of the unthinkable: a nuclear explosion.

Hundreds of people across the state are completing a week-long drill known as “Operation Northern Exposure.”

Current State talks with Lt. Col. William Humes, the public affairs officer for the Michigan National Guard, and Lt. Col. Ray Stemitz, a Michigan National Guard officer and the director of the exercise.


Humes, on how activities at different sites contribute to goals

One of the objectives of the exercise was to confirm the readiness of the Michigan Guard units that are tasked with providing support to civil authorities in the event of a catastrophic disaster. So these venues allowed the Michigan Guard units to practice that support right alongside the civilian agencies that we would support, like Ray said, in America's worst day. Probably the biggest reason we selected these venues and didn't just restrict our training to say, Camp Grayling or Fort Custer, was it allowed the involvement of those civilian responders that we would partner alongside to assist the civilians of the great state of Michigan.

Stemitz, on the Michigan National Guard staging a simulated riot, with participants chanting 'Let us in'

In the event of a mass catastrophe, a complex catastrophe, such as Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Sandy, there are staging bases that are set up outside the impacted area, the effected area that are used for logistics, planning, support operations prior to going into the effected area. Fort Cluster represents one of those logistic staging areas. So the people you just heard are Michigan citizens that are looking for food, shelter, medical attention, and they approach the base trying to gain access to the base to receive that medical attention. The soldiers there did a great job in working with the citizens to try and to meet their needs without disrupting the life saving and mitigation of human suffering operations that the base was supporting.

Stemitz, on what Michigan National Guard anticipates in comparison to other scenarios

We're not necessarily anticipating civil unrest like, for instance, what you saw in Ferguson. What we're kind of anticipating and using the exercise as an opportunity to work with those local civilian responders who we'd be working for in the event of something like this to better develop our coordination and policies and procedures of how we'll do this.

For instance, just recently the past year, the floods in Detroit where there was vehicles strewn all over the roads after the water receded. Or, for instance, in Portland, just recently with the tornadoes and the straight winds that came through collapsed buildings on the citizens of Portland. This exercise is actually taking those things and taking it to the next level. For instance, in Portland, it didn’t really exceed the capabilities of the local responders to respond and deal with the five people that were trapped inside the building. However, if you think about a nuclear blast in downtown Grand Rapids, there would be a lot more of those little many Portlands all throughout the Grand Rapids area. As an agency of last resort, the Department of Defense provides a lot of capability to support civilian responders to deal with situations like that.

Stemitz, on knowing whether or not troops have perfected their skills  

You never have it down enough. You can never get there fast enough. You can never provide enough resources, and you can never do it to the highest enough standards to support the citizens of Michigan. They demand a lot and they deserve a lot. And that's why we always have to keep practicing to keep improving because you're never there. You always have another step to go to be ready. 

Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
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