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Minnesota Guard unit ready for front lines of bioterrorism
By Mark Zdechlik
Minnesota Public Radio
October 18, 2001
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Throughout the country, specially-trained teams of National Guard troops are helping local law enforcement officials investigate potential chemical and biological threats. The teams are highly trained and equipped with some of the nation's most sophisticated equipment. The units are on the front lines of the country's defense against bioterrorism. One of them is based in the Twin Cities.

Lt. Col. Earl Juskowiak is the commander of the Minnesota National Guard's Weapons of Mass Destruction 55th Civil Support Team. He shows off a sophisticated piece of equipment called a BT 550 - a $10,000 vacuum cleaner - designed to suck minute particles from the air, and concentrate them so they can be easily tested at the site of a potential emergency.
(MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
Minnesota's Weapons of Mass Destruction 55th Civil Support Team has been up and running for less than one-and-a-half years. Like its counterparts based at 27 locations around the country, Minnesota's team trains constantly and is on standby around the clock to immediately respond to threats of nuclear, biological and chemical attacks.

The Minnesota National Guard granted reporter access to the group, provided its location and the full names of its members would not be disclosed with the exception of its commander, Lt. Col. Earl Juskowiak. Juskowiak says his troops have between 2,000 and 3,000 hours of intense training on weapons of mass destruction.

"We're designed to look at a full spectrum of weapons of mass destruction. By that we mean chemical, biological and nuclear and radiological weapons."

Only recently has the team been put to the test in real life situations. All told, the 22-member group has more than $7.5 million worth of high tech equipment.

One unit member named Paul shows off a vehicle that looks like an armored truck. "What we're looking at is the unified communication suite for the weapons of mass destruction unit," Paul says.

The truck is packed with an array of the latest communications equipment.

"It gives us Internet access, phone access, voice communications and radio communications," says Paul.

Cmdr. Juskowiak says some of his unit's biohazard and chemical weapons technology is the only type of its kind in the Upper Midwest. He shows off one piece of equipment.

"It's just out on the market and it's called the BT 550. In lay person's terms this is a vacuum cleaner," Juskowiak says.

A $10,000 vacuum cleaner - designed to suck minute particles from the air, and concentrate them so they can be easily tested at the site of a potential emergency.

This is the unit's unified communication suite. The truck is packed with an array of the latest communications equipment, which provides Internet access, phone access, voice communications and radio communications in emergency situations.
(MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
Juskowiak says the teams are prepared to react to more biological threats than anthrax. But he will not get specific.

"There are nine that we're checking for right now. It can grow to a larger number if need be."

In addition to numerous bio and chemical testing equipment, the team has a battery of Geiger counters at its disposal.

"These are the gentlemen I call my canaries," says Scott, another member of the unit. "These are the guys that go into the hot zone. They do the nasty stuff."

Like his 21 colleagues, Scott is compensated with full time military pay for his work. But he says he sees his job as so important he'd put on his $1,000 protective suit and venture into hot zones without pay, if necessary.

"Unfortunately, there is a need for us to be around."

For Scott and many of his colleagues, tragic as the circumstances are - the nation's real world chemical and bioterrorism concerns validate the expense of their units. Tony leads one of the "hot zone" teams.

"Normally we're on a one-hour recall, day or night. We are certainly more aware of our telephones and pagers now because we're getting called more."

Only once prior to late last week had the Minnesota team responded to a potential threat. It turned out to be a false alarm at a high school in the Twin Cities area. Since the first anthrax was discovered in Florida, teams from the Minnesota's 55th Civil Support Unit have been out nearly every day - mostly around the Twin Cities metro area. Their calls to a couple of post offices, a movie theater, a naval reserve base and an apartment complex, have so far ended with an "all clear."

Since the Department of Defense began assembling the weapons of mass destruction teams about two years ago, more than $200 million has gone into the program.

Some critics argue the money would be better spent training health care professionals and police and fire department staff, who would likely be the first responders to chemical and biological threats.

But Cmdr. Juskowiak says local authorites have repeatedly expressed gratitude that his team is available to assist them.

The Guard has gone to great lengths to publicize its 55th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support team's capabilities - in large part to help reassure the public the country is prepared for terrorist warfare.

"If I had to give one message I would say remain calm. It's not as bad as everybody would make you believe," says Juskowiak.