Disaster Drill Tests Guard's Readiness

Thousands of National Guard troops from Indiana and surrounding states respond to a mock nuclear attack. The results show that the Iraq war has left the Guard less able to react to domestic threats, but there are some positive outcomes.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

In Indiana last week, there was a nuclear attack, not a real one of course, but a mock attack staged by the Indiana National Guard. And as the disaster unfolded, it demonstrated what many had feared - the National Guard is spread thin fighting overseas and it lacks equipment needed at home.

NPR's Tom Bowman was at the exercise and has this report.

Unidentified Woman: Help me.

Unidentified Man #1: We're coming now, ma'am.

Unidentified Woman: Help me please. The fire is (unintelligible).

TOM BOWMAN: In this simulation, a woman is pinned under rubble that moments before was a building. Jackhammers work to free her. In a tent nearby, the top general in the Indiana National Guard appears before a hastily called mock press conference.

Major General MARTIN UMBARGER (Adjutant General, Indiana National Guard): An horrific attack of weapons of mass destruction. It was a nuclear attack.

BOWMAN: Then Major General Martin Umbarger admits that it's all a training exercise.

Maj. Gen. UMBARGER: We don't have loss of life. Thank God. We are here training and we're learning a lot.

BOWMAN: What they're learning is this: they are short on helicopters, Humvees and trucks. The Indiana Guard has just 60 percent of its overall equipment. Part of that is because its soldiers are repeatedly heading to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brigadier General RICHARD CLEVENGER (Chief of Staff, Indiana Air National Guard): We have been deployed for the past five years on a pretty constant basis.

BOWMAN: Brigadier General Richard Clevenger is an Indiana guard officer helping with the exercise.

Brig. Gen. CLEVENGER: We often use up and/or leave some of our assets in theater when we come back home.

BOWMAN: Two weeks ago, a tornado leveled Greensburg, Kansas. That also exposed shortages and led to delays. Kansas had to turn to other states and the federal government for help. But a devastating attack like this one shows that the results could be more tragic. Hours of delays could lead to untold deaths.

Lieutenant General Steve Blum is head of the National Guard. He toured the exercise site.

Lieutenant General STEVE BLUM (Chief, National Guard Bureau): What we're dealing with today would stress our shortage of equipment severely. And it would present a significant challenge to responders to be able to deal with that and the catastrophe at hand at the same time.

BOWMAN: In this simulation, other states could not provide enough aid. So the federal government offered cargo planes, helicopters, medical experts. That help came from General Victor Renuart of Northern Command. That's the military command created after the September 11th attacks to better protect the homeland.

General VICTOR RENUART (Commander, United States Northern Command): So our job then is to look for those seams and gaps and ways that we can help fill in the capabilities that reaches into every element of our national government.

BOWMAN: Renuart says the Indiana exercise shows that the Pentagon must work more closely with the Guard to help identify what the states need and he may shift to federal equipment so he can quickly move to a disaster site.

General Blum of the Guard bureau puts the issue in more stark terms.

Lt. Gen. BLUM: If your house catches on fire, how much of the equipment do you want the fire department to show up with? What percent would you be happy with?

BOWMAN: One bright spot of the exercise was new Guard communications equipment. It's a high-tech crate that can be flown or towed to a disaster sight. General Blum explains that it patches together all emergency radios through a military satellite system.

Lt. Gen. BLUM: Which allows us to communicate to the civilian responder, which usually reduces our reaction time and synchronizes our effort in a far better manner than we were able to do in 2005.

BOWMAN: Concern over the Guard response times has led the Bush administration to propose spending tens of billions of dollars to buy more equipment. It would bring the Guard up to about three quarters of what it needs. Blum calls it unprecedented help. He's also calling for more.

Lt. Gen. BLUM: It's roughly in the vicinity of $14 billion. That would buy down the risk to what I think would be an acceptable level.

BOWMAN: As Washington talks budgets, Indiana will find its Guard even more stretched. Later this year, it will send 4,000 of its soldiers and their equipment to Iraq.

Tom Bowman, NPR News.

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