Qayyarah Airfield West, IRAQ -- It was another hazy, early morning at Qayyarah Airfield West, a military base in northern Iraq, housing nearly 1,000 U.S. military personnel and coalition forces, or so it seemed. When U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Sean Tracy, the intelligence advisor with an Advise and Assist (A&A) Team from the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command (SPMAGTF-CR-CC), stepped outside his living quarters, he began to experience throat and nose irritation and realized there was a problem.
On October 22, 2016, sulfur dioxide from a fire at the Al-Mishraq sulfur plant not far away traveled over the base during the night, causing the military personnel to react to the dangerous threat posed in early hours of the morning. The monthly chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defense training received by the Marines allowed them to react quickly and effectively.
“We were thinking this could happen,” said Maj. Ryan Hunt, the officer in charge of the SPMAGTF-CR-CC A&A Team. “Every time ISIS left an area, they left burned earth as signs they were there. The Qayyarah oil field was on fire.”
Upon discovering the hazardous condition, Cpl. Darmani Parks, the CBRN defense noncommissioned officer of the A&A Team, alerted the French CBRN personnel and U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class James Traenkner, a corpsman, and acquired protective gear from the command post.
“We had two full sets of mission-oriented protective posture suits, one at work and one in the tent, and always had our gas masks on us with extra canisters,” said Sgt. Eric Candelaria, a communications Marine. “No matter where we were, we could always get to it.”
To avoid exposure to the toxic sulfur dioxide, the Marines donned their gas masks while working outside.
Donning his protective gear, Candelaria established communication networks with the antennas and satellites outside. Working with a gas mask on proved to be a challenge, but the training the Marines had received helped them overcome this situation.
Hunt and Parks measured the amount of the chemical agent amounts in the air using a pocket-sized handheld device known as a joint chemical agent detector (JCAD).
“Every Marine on the team was trained on at least a basic level of CBRN, so they could operate the systems, whether it was our JCAD detectors, administering medical aid to someone, and even making sure your buddy gets water,” Parks said.
Traenkner recorded signs and symptoms the Marines experienced hourly to ensure they were properly protected from the threat. While the Marines still experienced various symptoms from exposure with the chemical agent, they were able to continue their operations by relying on their training and support from across the theater.
In support of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, SPMAGTF-CR-CC used its internal aviation assets to transport thousands of gas mask canisters from the U.S. Army and hundreds from SPMAGTF stores that supported both the Marines and military personnel from other branches and coalition forces.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jerrett Davis, the CBRN officer with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, SPMAGTF-CR-CC, played a vital role in ensuring the A&A team and partner forces received these items and any additional CBRN support required.
“The biggest thing is – it all starts in garrison,” Parks said. ”Every Marine is a rifleman. We have to learn how to be a rifleman in CBRN equipment. The training in garrison is what is going to keep you alive.”
Some of the techniques the Marines practice include donning and doffing the gas masks, decontamination procedures, and contamination avoidance concepts.
“Training builds confidence on using the equipment while operating in a CBRN environment and builds awareness on the chemical agent threat in the area of operations,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Derrek Brooks, the CBRN officer. “In a critical situation, you fall back on your training. If you have never worked around this stuff, you won’t know how to use it and put others at risk.”
The SPMAGTF-CR-CC A&A team returned from their mission at Qayyarah Airfield West in March 2017 and redeployed with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, in April 2017.
SPMAGTF-CR-CC is a crisis response unit and task-organized to respond to possible crises throughout the Central Command area of operations with the ability to project combat power over vast distances using its organic aviation, logistics, and ground combat assets.