Story by Mark Olsen on 06/28/2018The call came in, two security guards had gotten sick after entering an abandoned building at Naval Weapons Station Earle.
One of the guards said that there was some kind of home-built laboratory in the building.
Within 30 minutes, the New Jersey National Guard's 21st Weapons of Mass Destruction-Civil Support Team (WMD-CST) advance team was on site. Three hours later, the entire team was in place and preparing to enter the building.
As the military first responders for this region, these Soldiers and Airmen are the first line of defense when it comes to responding to a natural, or man-made disaster.
U.S. Army survey team chief Staff Sgt. Cory Sweetman and survey team member Staff Sgt. Nicky Lam entered the building wearing protective suits, which can sustain them in a contaminated environment for up to an hour. During that time, Sweetman and Lam investigated the building, which was now being treated as a crime scene; discovered two makeshift laboratories that were being used to create weaponized chemicals; took photos of the setup, and used various types of detection equipment to identify the chemicals.
Their job, like their name, is to survey the site and get information back so the Naval and CST leadership can decide what to do next.
The decision is made to send a second team in to collect samples. U.S. Army Sgts. Joseph A. Bercovic and Mauricio Caceres return to the lab and collect and bag samples of the solid and liquid chemicals. Because this is a crime scene, each sample is treated as evidence and placed in sealed bags.
Everything is going just as they had trained countless times before.
Then the unthinkable happens.
Bercovic tears his suit on exposed piece of metal. The room's atmosphere is saturated with an unknown agent and Bercovic is rendered unconscious in seconds.
Caceres radios in a man-down emergency and proceeds to seal the tear to prevent any additional contamination. Survey team members arrive and transport Bercovic to an emergency decontamination line where he is decontaminated. Caceres' quick response has made the difference between life and death for Bercovic.
Fortunately, June 12's event at Colts Neck, New Jersey, was a proficiency evaluation run by U.S. Army North civilian observer controllers.
So no one had died and no one was permanently injured.
The assessment, which was done in preparation for their upcoming recertification exercise in April 2019, tested all aspects of the unit's command, operations, communications, administration/logistics, medical/analytical, and survey sections.
"This is to see where the unit stands before the actual test," said 1st Sgt. Steve Katkics, first sergeant, 21st WMD-CST.
For the 21 New Jersey National Guard Soldiers and Airmen, the evaluation gave them a snapshot of what areas needed improving prior to the 2019 exercise.
In essence, it's like taking a practice exam before the test.
Every 18 months, the CST must be validated on common tasks, which include identifying threats, the decontamination process, and working with civilian authorities in a real world setting to ensure that the unit is ready in the event of a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear threat.
The 21st WMD-CST is one of 57 weapons of mass destruction civil support teams established to support local authorities at man-made or natural disasters by identifying chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear substances, as well as assess the consequences, advise on response measures, and assist in requesting follow-on forces.
The 21st has provided support at Super Bowl 48 at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, the papal visit to Philadelphia, United Nations General Assembly, along with numerous national and state special security events.
And the 21st WMD-CST is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
And all it takes is one phone call.