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Marines and Sailors with U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, demonstrate proper removal of a gas mask from a simulated chemical contact victim while training for the medical management of chemical and biological causalties during an exercise at Stone Bay on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., Dec. 6, 2017. Long prohibited by international agreements, chemical weapons have been increasingly used on the battlefield by American adversaries including violent extremist organizations. Raiders gained valuable practical application skills in handling casualties in complex and dangerous chemical environments.

Photo by Sgt. Salvador R. Moreno

Combating chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction

14 Dec 2017 | Cpl. Bryann K. Whitley The Official United States Marine Corps Public Website

Marines and Sailors with U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command conducted a countering weapons of mass destruction course for service members to learn to combat, adapt to and overcome chemical and biological contaminations, at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., Dec. 5-8, 2017. 

Chemical weapons have been around since World War I, but have seldom been used in battle following international horror at their inhumane effects and devastation. Chemical weapons include nerve, blister and choking agents that can be dispensed as liquids, vapors, gases and aerosols. Biological weapons can include toxins, bacteria, viruses and fungi released into the world with the intent to kill and maim.

“The threat is very real today,” said Timothy Byrne, director of the Chemical Casualty Care Division at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense. “Chemical weapons, such as mustard and chlorine gases, have been used in Iraq and Syria in recent events.”

Operational Inherent Resolve, the international coalition effort to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, conducted airstrikes on ISIL chemical weapons facilities the week before the training, underscoring Byrne’s point. 

Marines and Sailors learned to detect signs and symptoms of a weapons employment, how to don protective clothing and how to treat victims without contaminating themselves in the process. Service members also studied past cases of chemical and biological incidents, in order to evaluate what could or could not have been done differently to improve the medical outcome.

 “While chemical weapons symptoms can be seen in minutes to hours, biological weapons can take days before symptoms are seen,” said U.S. Army Capt. Perry Wiseman, a nurse with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease. “It is important for them to be able to recognize any symptoms as soon as possible to limit any spread that can occur.”

Common chemical weapons symptoms can include vomiting, convulsions, skin irritation, headaches, and respiratory difficulty. Biological symptoms tend to present themselves as flu-like, making it difficult to differentiate between a biological weapon and a common cold. It is imperative for the Marines and Sailors to be actively cognitive of these signs and symptoms to mitigate further contamination and expedite triage and care for victims. 

“This training afforded our Marines and Sailors an opportunity to be of the highest state of readiness,” said MARSOC’s force health protection officer with Health Services Support. “[It allows them] to go out and operate in an environment where they can potentially face a chemical or biological warfare agent and mitigate harmful exposures.”

Marines conduct biennial chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) training as part of their required training. MARSOC wanted to identify gaps in the current requirement, so they could develop sustainable training solutions and prepare deploying teams with this knowledge. While the course reinforced basic skills learned in CBRN training, CWMD focused more on chemical and biological threats and how to counteract their effects with appropriate medical aid. 

“This is multi-service training on field management, decontamination, and medical treatment of biological and chemical warfare agents,” said Byrne. “It is also customized to the needs of the units in order to be mission ready.”

During the course, the Marines and Sailors donned their Mission Oriented Protective Posture gear and executed reaction drills for numerous scenarios regarding a chemical weapons attack, including decontamination of chemically-contaminated patients. They also analyzed steps and procedures to take when handling biological weapons and what treatments or medicine are available to control these biological threats. 

“Our hope is that they never encounter a chemical or biological environment, but if the teams do, we want them to have the skills to effectively treat and mitigate exposure,” said MARSOC’s force health protection officer. “The next life they may save could be their own, and being able to recognize signs, symptoms and exposure could be that lifesaving factor.”

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