More than 500 California National Guard Soldiers and Airmen proved their mettle March 27-31, 2023, during the California Homeland Response Force’s external evaluation exercise at Camp Roberts.
Service members worked 12-hour shifts for a week straight while responding to simulated crisis response missions resulting from a series of notional large-scale chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive blasts impacting cities in Nevada and Arizona.
They were observed and graded by a team from the Army Interagency Training & Education Center, the National Guard Bureau and First Army.
The external evaluation (ExEval) is usually required every other year, but because of the deadly California wildfires in 2018 and the COVID-19 pandemic, this was the HRF’s first evaluated exercise in seven years.
“We missed two rounds of HRF ExEVALs based on real life and the global pandemic,” said U.S. Army Col. Eric Sharyer, commander of the California Army National Guard’s 49th Military Police Brigade. “That’s the longest a HRF has ever gone without an ExEVAL, and they [National Guard Bureau leadership] were concerned.”
Sharyer said the exercise evaluators were augmented by a leadership team representing the National Guard’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Response Enterprise, which encompasses all National Guard weapons of mass destruction and CBRN response efforts, including smaller-scale Civil Support Teams and midsized CBRN Enhanced Force Packages.
The enterprise also includes 10 larger-scale Homeland Response Forces nationwide – including the one Sharyer commands – with one force positioned in each FEMA district to provide a broad range of capabilities at a moment’s notice when requested by civil authorities. Each force can deploy to conduct command and control and work alongside first responders in casualty assistance, search and extraction, decontamination and medical triage and stabilization.
Over five days, the evaluators and National Guard leadership team watched the HRF work through scenarios and challenges in the field and command post.
The HRF built on lessons learned from an internal, ungraded January exercise to prepare for the week, Sharyer said.
“We had a very aggressive glide path to get here with multiple staff exercises, and then we had a collective training event in January where I brought the evaluators out because I wanted to get a true azimuth of where we were at,” Sharyer said.
The training paid off for Spc. Roxana Laub from the brigade’s 40th Military Police Company based in Los Alamitos.
“We have been blessed and fortunate to have some of the best training in the last three years with making sure we’re fully prepared for any sort of chemical warfare, weapons of mass destruction incident,” Laub said in the field near an elaborate rubble pile where fellow service members were conducting fatality search and extraction, while others conducted medical evaluations and decontamination of role players.
The team made some adjustments for the graded exercise based on January’s experience. They moved their plans cell into the early entry command post to improve planners’ situational awareness and data.
“We revamped our whole process on how we plan for an OPORD [operations order],” Sharyer said. “We put our plans cell with our early entry command post to build a better plan because they have more information than the rear. That proved to be the key component of our success.”
For the March iteration, evaluators observed the force for one day and provided feedback and training as needed for two days. The week culminated with a 36-hour graded external evaluation based on the team’s response to a simulated 10-kiloton nuclear detonation in Arizona.
“Our Day One here was not bad; it was pretty good. So we made some tweaks. Day Two, we made some tweaks. Day Three, we made some tweaks,” Sharyer said. “So on Day Four of the exercise, which is Day One of the ExEVAL, I was very confident going in.”
At 4 p.m. Friday, after a day and a half spent responding to simulated calamity after calamity, the command post erupted in cheers as exercise controllers called “EndEx” to officially end the simulation.
“Every one of you have put in a lot of time and a lot of hard work,” said Capt. Levi Bragg, a command post evaluator from the Army Interagency Training & Education Center. “Whether your community knows it or not, they are safer for your sacrifice. May they never need your service.”
Sharyer believes his team is the best-trained HRF in the nation.
“We stand ready to protect the citizens of California and the citizens of the United States in any CBRN event,” he said. “We’re trained well, equipped well and this evaluation is the proof of that.”
California’s Homeland Response Force is a regionally-oriented joint task force hosted by the California National Guard to support incidents in FEMA Region IX, which includes Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, Republic of Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and 150 tribal nations.