Elite chemical cowboys stay on call

July 11, 1995|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

The first name of Sgt. 1st Class David Isenberg was incorrectly reported in a photo caption accompanying an article Tuesday about the Army's Technical Escort Unit, the U.S. military's chemical bomb squad.

The Sun regrets the error.

Call them the chemical cowboys.

On a moment's notice, these highly trained soldiers and civilians of the Army's Technical Escort Unit are dispatched from drab brick and block buildings at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County to remove old, unexploded chemical shells on U.S. military bases, to clean up forgotten caches of weapons endangering homes and businesses, or to dispose of enemy stockpiles of poison arms. They are the U.S. military's elite chemical bomb squad, on call to go anywhere, anytime.

Though largely unknown to the public, the 150-member unit would be among the first called to a terrorist attack on U.S. soil involving chemical or biological weapons.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Now, in the wake of the sarin attack on a Tokyo subway and the Oklahoma City bombing, Congress is considering giving the unit an expanded role in investigating chemical and biological terrorism.

Their chief mission is to remove or disarm chemical weapons, safeguard shipments of the military's toxic chemicals and clean them up when they spill.

They destroyed Saddam Hussein's Scud missile warheads filled with a deadly nerve agent. They joined FBI agents in New York on a secret, counterterrorism investigation involving the cult suspected in the Tokyo attack. They recovered old vials of highly toxic mustard agent found buried at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds in Jackson. They were dispatched to Disneyland in response to a threatened nerve-agent attack last Easter. They ,, rushed to investigate chemical munitions found a few hundred feet from homes in Edgewood.

"It takes a special breed of individual to do what they do," said James M. Allingham, a veteran Army public affairs official who has worked with "tech escort" for 11 years. "They are willing to put themselves at risk" for the public, he said. "There is no margin for doing it wrong."

Lt. Col. Kertis D. Peterson, 43, unit commander, said, "It's the best-kept secret the military's got."

The counterterrorism bill now before Congress would give the military a more active role in assisting federal law enforcement agencies in the investigation of terrorist threats or acts involving chemical or biological weapons.

It would allow the military, and thus the Aberdeen unit, to search for, collect and analyze evidence and disarm weapons. Armed soldiers would help apprehend terrorists; the Aberdeen unit doesn't carry weapons, said Harvey Perritt, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon.

The unit's most common missions are helping with emergencies and environmental cleanups at military bases, sometimes assisting or advising municipalities during chemical accidents, and helping U.S. law enforcement agencies investigate terrorist

threats.

The unit was established in 1943 to transport U.S. and captured chemical weapons during World War II -- hence the name, "Technical Escort Unit." During World War II, it performed 1,000 missions and moved 850,000 tons of weapons.

Most often, the work is anything but glamorous. The unit is made up of 68 civilians and 82 soldiers, many receiving only $200 additional a month in hazardous duty pay. When not on missions, members -- many with college or advanced degrees -- train in handling explosives, use of their equipment, or first aid.

The training is vital; the unit routinely handles mustard agent, a liquid that blisters the skin and respiratory system, often permanently damaging the lungs. They also han

dle phosgene, which can kill quickly from choking or also cause irreversible lung damage, and nerve agent, which short-circuits the nervous system and is fatal after a whiff.

The equipment is vital, too. Especially useful is the $40,000 Portable Isotopic Neutron Spectroscopy device, or PINS, a device similar to an X-ray machine that uses gamma rays to identify the types of chemicals contained in weapons.

Colonel Peterson said there has never been a death or major injury but "you are always on guard."

A major mission in 1990, "Operation Steel Box," was more akin to what the unit did in World War II. It was responsible for shipping more than 100,000 artillery shells filled with nerve agent from Germany to Johnston Island, 700 miles southwest of Hawaii.

After the Gulf War, a half-dozen unit members, wearing rubber gear in 125-degree daytime heat, worked with a United Nations team to destroy thousands of Iraqi bombs, artillery shells and missile warheads, at the Al Muthanna chemical weapons complex northwest of Baghdad.

In 1993, at an exclusive Washington neighborhood called Spring Valley, an 80-member team was dispatched to remove 44 chemical shells and nearly 100 high-explosive munitions from what had been a World War I training and test site.

The monthlong cleanup was performed under intense media and public scrutiny. Three U.S. senators and other dignitaries lived in the community, and residents had to be evacuated for up to a week at a time.

"They are real pros," said Pat Brown, an attorney for W. C. & A. N. Miller Cos., the Spring Valley developer whose workers unearthed the weapons. "They were right smack in the middle of a residential area. Their leadership was excellent."

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