By Danyale C. Kellogg, Biodefense PhD student
In October of 2021, I had the privilege of attending the Medical Management of Chemical and Biological Casualties course (MCBC), offered by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD) and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID) at USAMRICD’s facility in Edgewood, MD. I learned from instructors at these two legendary institutions how to identify chemical and biological warfare (CBW) agents, diagnose the conditions they cause, and mitigate their impacts. When I applied to the Biodefense PhD program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason, I could not have predicted that during the first semester of my doctoral studies I would be cutting a classmate out of Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) gear in the Maryland woods as part of a hands-on training exercise. This course was an incredibly informative, fascinating, and fun opportunity that was an excellent supplement to my graduate education. As an aspiring scholar-practitioner, understanding how the boots-on-the-ground manage these types of events and how such an event could impact broader operations and foreign policy is invaluable.
As the course was hosted entirely at USAMRICD due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the course felt a bit more focused on chemical warfare (CW) than biological warfare (BW). However, I found this almost more enjoyable as I had virtually no understanding of CW, making this an excellent opportunity to be immersed in learning about these agents. While I understood major concepts like the supposed chemical weapons taboo and global nonproliferation efforts from my prior studies in international relations, this course offered much more in-depth, niche knowledge. For example, I learned at MCBC that mustard-lewisite (military designation HL), two chemical weapons used together, might be a desirable agent for an actor to use, depending on the target and situation in question. This is because HL has certain properties of both agents, such as a lower freeing temperature, making it better suited for both aerial spraying and ground dispersal. Understanding concepts like these are useful from an academic perspective since it provides a better understanding of how an enemy might think about using chemical weapons and how we might prioritize defensive measures in light of such threats.
Bridging the divide between academia and practice requires scholars to learn what real-world elements of their fields look like, which this course provided through its classroom and practical portions. Though this course is explicitly targeted at healthcare providers, I think the in-depth knowledge I gained about chemical and biological agent identification and attack mitigation will improve my work, which lies at the intersection of global health and defense policy. Because of this course, I now have a deeper understanding of how difficult it is to triage victims in a CBW mass casualty event and how time-consuming and complicated it would be to manage decontamination, evacuation, and treatment of victims. I now know how many autoinjectors personnel usually carry in their gas mask carrier to use for buddy aid, what types of drugs different types of military hospitals normally have supplied, and what that all means for their response capabilities in a mass casualty scenario. While the specific, little details may not be critically important to my work, having this context is extremely helpful and, hopefully, will allow me to conduct more rigorous research and make more-informed recommendations over the course of my career.
Finally, deterrence in the CBW realm is dependent on the existence of effective countermeasures and would-be attackers perceiving that their targets are able to successfully mitigate potential attacks. Having attended this training, I am confident that USAMRICD and USAMRIID are succeeding in helping strengthen that deterrent through this and other courses. While our class had about fifty people (the vast majority military personnel) in it, I constantly heard instructors stressing that this information should be taken back to attendees’ units, shared, and used to improve training back home, increasing the chances for this information to reach those responsible for responding to a chemical or biological attack. I heard numerous encouragements for officers to coordinate more closely with their units’ Chemical Corps folks or request food supply inspections from the Veterinary Corps when in doubt about food safety while deployed. It was reassuring to see instructors encouraging servicemembers to use this information proactively, particularly when so much of what our program focuses on is strong preparedness and prevention as deterrents for CBW attacks.
This course was an excellent opportunity for me to interact with professionals in fields entirely unlike my own while having fun and learning a ton. I enjoyed gaining more hands-on knowledge about CBW agents and military medicine while contemplating what this course represents in overall U.S. biodefense.