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Who Trains to Run Tests on Deadly CBRN Agents While Taking Mortar Fire? The 1st AML, That’s Who.

1st Area Medical Laboratory personnel analyze an unknown substance during a training exercise, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., Aug. 14, 2018. Credit: Joshua Hugley, U.S. Army

Soldiers from the 1st Area Medical Laboratory, part of the 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives (CBRNE) Command, recently completed their culminating training event (CTE) for deployment readiness on Aug. 17 in an exercise near Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The purpose of the exercise is to practice mission critical tasks such as detection of chemical, biological, and radiological threats, tactical movement, reaction to enemy fire, casualty care, and shipment of theater-validated samples to specific U.S. labs.

“This is very important. There is only one area medical laboratory in the entire U.S. Army inventory, and thus, it is paramount for us to maintain our readiness and our capability to deploy at a moment’s notice to whatever crisis emerges.” – Capt. Blair Dancy, 1st AML’s Chemical Threat Assessment Chief.

The 1st AML has been called upon to support various missions in the U.S. and abroad as they did for Operation Unified Assistance in West Africa during the largest Ebola outbreak in history.

1st Area Medical Laboratory
A Soldier assigned to the 1st Area Medical Laboratory screens a teammate for contamination while delivering a “hazardous” sample during their culminating training event. Credit: Joshua Hugley, U.S. Army

The unique logistical requirements of their mission require training and coordination as well.  The unit deploys with standard military equipment such as vehicles, tents, tools and weapons. They must also must deploy bulky lab equipment such as biosafety cabinets, glove boxes and microorganism hardware and software testing systems, as well as personal protection equipment (PPE).

According to Sgt. Kierstin Pontius, a medical laboratory specialist, if they receive a suspicious sample, and don’t know what the threat is, they suit up in full coveralls with respiratory systems without any hesitation. She said having confidence in their protective gear makes her job easier.

“The Army trains you to be ready to go into any situation at any time. We are used to running head first into everything; why would this be any different?” – Sgt. Kierstin Pontius

As part of the CTE, the team must handle a high-profile sample and make sure it reaches the lab while preventing any sort of contamination and maintaining proper chain of custody. But remember, this is the Army – so while they are doing tests in their respective labs, the team gets hit with random simulated attacks. It can be direct or indirect fire such as mortars, requiring them to react to unpredictable situations. Donning their protective gear, taking cover or suppressing fire are some of the tactics they can respond with.

But the threats are not only external to camp. The Occupational and Environmental Health Assessment Team, a section within the 1st AML, collects water and soil samples from around the camp to ensure all service members are safe.

“Our job is to make sure any area we go in is safe for troops,” said Sgt. Glenn Davis, a veterinary food inspection specialists with the team.

Article adapted from original by Staff Sgt. Angel D. Martinez-Navedo

Profile: 1st Area Medical Laboratory

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