Hotel rooms filled up across Johnson County after about 14,000 soldiers came to Camp Atterbury for training over the past few weeks.
Most went to the southern Johnson County military installation to take part in a massive training exercise that prepares them for a nuclear bomb blast in a major Midwestern city. The exercise, the largest ever by the U.S. Army unit that is in charge of responding to disasters on American soil, could be the largest in the world, U.S. Army North joint exercise planner Clark Wigley said.
Soldiers who took part in the Vibrant Response drill practiced responding to simulated nuclear attacks and how they’d work with local police and firefighters to help the survivors. They searched for people in rubble; cleared debris to reopen roads; decontaminated war games actors exposed to “radiation”; and brought the survivors food, water and other supplies.
They took part in hyper-realistic training that involved billowing smoke, junk cars and even airplane wreckage, U.S. Army North spokesman Donald Manuszeweski said.
The annual disaster response drill started in late July and is winding down. Camp Atterbury has had to continue to prepare soldiers and contractors for overseas deployments, and also has been hosting other special events over the last few weeks, including the Indiana National Guard’s required annual training and U.S. Navy SEALs sniper school. An estimated 14,000 troops passed through the post over the past month.
About 9,400 members of the military participated in the Vibrant Response exercise, a few thousand more than last year. U.S. Army North decided to send more units to the disaster response drill, which they’re required to go through before being certified to respond to terrorist attacks or other disasters, Manuszeweski said.
Soldiers came from 25 states and as far away as Washington state to take part in the training. They flew in on about 50 planes and needed 850 trucks to haul all their equipment and vehicles to the post, said Lt. Col. Mark Curtin, the installation transportation officer at Camp Atterbury.
The annual training exercise has been growing since it first was conducted at Camp Atterbury in 2007. This year’s drill was the biggest training event in post history, Maj. Lisa Kopczynski said. “It’s been our summer surge,”Kopcyznski said.Visiting soldiers have filled the post’s 4,000 or so barracks beds, though many slept outside in the field for their training, range control officer Brent Schmidt said. They also took up almost all of the ranges and training areas at the post over the past few weeks.
For instance, they used a Camp Atterbury lake to practice making contaminated water drinkable and to hook massive 1½-ton buckets to helicopters to fight fires, Schmidt said.
Soldiers did what they would need to do if they had to respond to a 10-kiloton blast in a major city or a series of dirty bomb explosions. As many as 100,000 people were killed in one scenario.
Role-players helped. Soldiers searched amid piles of rubble for victims, who often were played by actors covered in fake blood, and they went inside smoking homes and airplane wreckage to rescue trapped people.
“There’s rubble piles and damaged cars and things you might find in a disaster,” Manuszeweski said. “They try to make it as realistic as possible.”
Actors playing the roles of victims were taken to medical tents to be decontaminated. Soldiers rinsed radioactive debris off them over plastic catch basins to keep contaminated materials from seeping into groundwater.
They then often were whisked away by helicopter to simulated field hospitals to receive more advanced medical care.
The soldiers tried to practice any tasks that local police or fire departments might ask them to do in the aftermath of a nuclear blast, whether it involved treating people for radiation poisoning or hauling supplies over rubble-strewn roads to victims, Manuszeweski said.
“They’re prepared for the real thing,” he said.
During the Atterbury exercise, soldiers who were overseeing it rented hundreds of hotel rooms and had to go as far north as Greenwood and as far south as Seymour to find accommodations. Area hotels were so full that the Johnson County Horse Park was forced to postpone an event until this weekend, superintendent Chris Johnston said.
Visiting soldiers staying off-post dined at nearby restaurants, shopped at nearby stores and filled up on gas at local stations, Curtin said. The military also chartered planes and buses to bring them to southern Johnson County and fueled about 850 trucks at local gas stations.
“The economic impact is tremendous,” Curtin said. “It’s millions of dollars in economic impact to the community.”
The event cost an estimated $8 million to stage last year, but it’s gotten even bigger this year, Manuszeweski said.