ZEMIANSKE KOSTOľANY, Slovakia –
U.S. Soldiers in Europe who specialize in the chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear military occupation don't often get the chance to train in live chemical agent scenarios.
Toxic Valley 2021, an international, open-air chemical warfare agent collection and assessment exercise hosted by members of the Slovak Armed Forces, has been testing and providing training for CBRN response teams since early September at their Zemianske Kostoľany Training and Testing Centre, Slovakia, and live agent training has been at the forefront.
"Normally, the only time we get the opportunity for live agent training would be during initial entry training or military occupational specialty training," said U.S. Army Reserve Capt. Shawna So, a survey team leader with the 773rd Civil Support Team, 7th Mission Support Command, based out of Kaiserslautern, Germany. "So to get the chance to train here locally in Europe with NATO partners is amazing."
The 773rd CST is representing the U.S. along with their active-duty CBRN counterparts from a reconnaissance platoon under the 54th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade out of Vicenza, Italy. The multi-component U.S. duo is one of twelve countries participating in this year's exercise, which runs until Sept. 24th.
U.S. Army Reserve Lt. Col. Mary J. Durham, commander of the 773rd and senior responsible officer for the U.S. participants, says Toxic Valley scenarios have been an invaluable experience for the CBRN teams as they help to improve proficiency, interoperability, and tactics, techniques and procedures.
"We fill a very unique roll in Europe as the only CST here and the only CST in the Army Reserve," said Durham. "So trying to find out how we get the same training proficiency as a stateside CST, that has a much more robust support structure in the U.S. because they're part of Homeland Defense, this exercise gives us the opportunity to operationalize what we do because we don't have the opportunity to work with live agents."
CBRN teams have spent their days reacting to a variety of training scenarios with both simulated and live chemical agent threats.
Leaders receive the mission and then the teams have an allotted amount of time to conduct briefs and reconnaissance, test equipment, suit up, locate and react to the threat, gather samples, and conduct decontamination procedures.
"Our live agent training facility is very unique," said Slovac Armed Forces Capt. Miroslav Labaska, lead exercise planner for Toxic Valley 21. "It was designed to train with live agents up to a platoon-sized unit and we can train in ambient conditions and still use the facility."
Labaska and his team created Toxic Valley in 2013, but because of limited capacity, they decided to tailor the exercise to CBRN sampling teams and mobile laboratories.
“We wanted to accommodate more nations with smaller teams for maximum participation,” said Labaska.
This is only the second year that U.S. CBRN units have participated in Toxic Valley and it's a first for Soldiers based in Europe, with Indiana National Guard troops attending in 2019. Toxic Valley 2020 was cancelled due to COVID-19.
"We're dealing with a global pandemic right now and it’s a big challenge," said Durham. "So I think as the CBRN community trains in events like these, we get to share tactics, techniques and procedures and find different solutions to attack these types of things as a community and I think this exercise proves that."
Durham says CBRN teams from different countries have been asking to watch the 773rd conduct training scenarios, as her teams have also observed how various units from partner nations execute their missions.
"I think coming to Europe gives our Soldiers an edge because not only do they have to think differently to interact with our partners, they have to be willing to problem solve and then realize it's not just about being the best with your equipment," said Durham. "It's about being able to teach and then absorb knowledge and make adjustments."
"What we learned from our U.S. colleagues is that this is the only NATO-involved CBRN exercise with live agents," said Labaska. "So we are proud to bring them this training opportunity."
Durham and her troops seem thankful for that opportunity.
"I love it. Our partners in Slovakia have been wonderful; very professional. They've bent over backwards to make sure this is a good exercise for all the participants and my Soldiers have been really happy," said Durham.
"(Toxic Valley) gives Soldiers the opportunity to test their skill set. It gives them the opportunity to work together. It's shared experiences. It's a beautiful country and everybody has been very welcoming so we hope we can come back.”