COP SULLIVAN, AFGHANISTAN – When Corporal Victor Foster says he has a dirty job, he’s not exaggerating. As an MOS 5711 Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) Defense Specialist with the 1st Battalion 5th Marines, Foster is exercising his skills all day digging latrines and burning shit at his company’s combat outpost in southern Afghanistan.
To prepare for his critical role, Foster, 23, from Ames, Iowa, received five months of intensive training in hazardous material detection, containment, and decontamination at the Marine Corps’ CBRN School in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
As part of his training, Foster was required to spend ten hours a day in his Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) suit in a hazardous materials environment, identifying various nerve agents and other chemical weapons. By the end of his training he could identify any chemical in ‘just seconds’, said Foster, as he poured diesel fuel into one of several shit-filled barrels.
“When I first arrived in Afghanistan, my commanding officer asked me when the last time was that the Taliban used a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear device,” Foster said. “When I told him never, he handed me a shovel and said ‘start digging’.”
In addition to his own training, Foster was responsible for ensuring that every Marine in the battalion was equipped with, and knew how to properly operate, a gas mask.
“The M40 field protective mask is a critical piece of equipment,” said Foster, repeatedly stirring the flaming waste. “If an attack occurs, Marines have only seconds to don and clear their masks. If they miss that window due to lack of training, or unserviceable masks, their odds of survival drop exponentially as the seconds tick by.”
Corporal Foster then attempted to elaborate on the various agents Marines were likely to encounter on the battlefield and their effects, but repeatedly fell over vomiting due to the stench coming out of the burning barrels.
The battalion’s other CBRN Marine, Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Cooper, amplified on Foster’s remarks with an example of CBRN in action.
“A few months after we got here, the S-2 reported that a cluster of unexploded chemical munitions left over from the Soviet occupation had been uncovered nearby, so we got ready to crack open our ISO”, said Cooper, currently acting as a doormat for the battalion commander’s office.
Battalion CBRN sections are equipped with an entire shipping container that holds a several hundred thousand dollar suite of equipment to deal with various unconventional weapons.
“It was like, this is what you train for,” said Cooper, as the operations officer wiped his muddy boots on Cooper's face, “then we got word that the munitions were just conventional, and the following week we had to empty out our ISO container for the Sergeant Major’s new CrossFit equipment.”
In light of near emergencies like this, Foster’s commander has been extremely pleased with the performance of CBRN on this deployment.
“For all the time we wasted in the work-up doing gas chambers to train to fight an enemy that has never used chemical weapons, just to stick our gas masks at the bottom of our sea bags for the whole deployment, bringing CBRN has still really paid off,” said Captain Alexander Hunt.
“Normally, whenever I needed a working party, I’d have to hunt down a bunch of pissed-off grunts who had just gotten off a patrol…here all I have to do is grab my CBRN Marines, my ground sensor platoon, and the chaplain’s assistant, and nobody cares.” Hunt then sent his police sergeant to inform Foster of a working party to repaint the entire base in preparation for a visit by the Commanding General.
Corporal Foster admits that he didn’t exactly see himself spending six months burning other peoples’ excrement. “In the schoolhouse, everyone was talking about North Korea, and the possibility of fighting in a full chemical environment,” said Foster. “Our instructors warned us that we could be responsible for saving hundreds of lives.”
He then began hosing out a new barrel. “Yeah. We're saving lives alright."