US, South Korea training focuses on North's chemical weapons
RODRIGUEZ RANGE, South Korea — North Korea might be threatening to use nuclear weapons to turn the U.S. and South Korea into a “sea of fire,” but a group of U.S. and Republic of Korea soldiers here are spending this week focusing on the rogue nation’s potential chemical weapons stockpile.
On Tuesday afternoon, ROK army K-200 tracked armored personnel carriers and U.S. Strykers rolled up to the edge of a mock village at this live-fire training area near the Demilitarized Zone.
Soon, squads of gas-mask-wearing troops were storming buildings and running through drills they would need to complete to secure North Korean chemical weapons in the event of war.
“The scenario is that this (mock village) is a chemical munitions facility,” said 1st Lt. Zak Knowles, a platoon leader with 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Lewis, Wash. “The enemy has placed blocking positions to disrupt our route. One building is where they are making the chemical munitions; our objective is to secure the site.”
First Lt. Min Ku Park, 25, a platoon leader with the 137th Mechanized Battalion, 8th Infantry Division, of the Republic of Korea Army, said the gas masks and other protective gear that the troops wear to protect themselves was uncomfortable.
“Today we are just wearing the masks,” Park said. “It’s not as uncomfortable as when you have the boots and coveralls on.
Still, the U.S. and Korean troops performed well together during the exercise, he said.
“They are friendly, and they try hard to communicate even though there is a language barrier,” Park said of the 1-2 soldiers doing the chemical weapons training alongside his men.
The Fort Lewis unit is halfway through a Pacific Pathways deployment that has already taken a battalion of its troops and equipment to Thailand. The 1-2 SBCT, which brought 12 Strykers to Korea, will then head to the Philippines to take part in the annual Balikatan exercise.
Every one of 1-2 soldiers in Korea will have completed the chemical weapons mission training by the end of the week, said Knowles, 24, of Williamsburg, Va.
He said the soldiers understand the need for training, especially with fiery rhetoric coming out of North Korea. The exercise is part of large joint military drills between the U.S. and South Korean militaries. It’s being held at a particularly tense time on the peninsula.
The U.N. Security Council recently slapped new sanctions on Pyongyang for conducting a nuclear test and ballistic missile launch earlier this year. North Korea on Tuesday took a slap at the sanctions Tuesday when leader Kim Jong Un warned it soon would carry out another nuclear test and try out several types of ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
The tension between the two sides is an issue for the U.S. soldiers, whose families back home are watching news reports about the situation on the peninsula, Knowles said. It brings home the real threat in Korea to soldiers, but it’s been a fact of life for years.
The first sergeant of the U.S. company training on Tuesday, Sean Rosenthal, 32, of Fort Worth, Texas, said he has plenty of experience conducting conventional raids thanks to four deployments to Iraq, but this is his first trip to Korea.
Part of Tuesday’s chemical weapons training involved dealing with civilians on the battlefield.
During one scenario, the American and Korean soldiers went house to house in the village searching for chemical weapons. When they ran a role player acting as a civilian on the battlefield, one soldier detained and watched him closely while others searched the building.
Rosenthal said the raids are a novelty for many of his young soldiers, who have trained only for direct action.
“Going through the briefing and finding out what they have going on around here … it’s pretty crazy,” Rosenthal said.
Spc. Elijah Dickson, 25, of Kingston, Tenn., a medic with 1-2, said soldiers headed into a region where there is a threat carry syringes loaded with antidotes to nerve agents with which they can inject themselves in an emergency.
If troops encounter chemical weapons on the battlefield, their priority is to complete the mission and deal with the consequences later. Medics can treat symptoms such as convulsions with Valium, he said.
However, the protective gear means there are limits to the treatment that can be provided. For example, you can’t take a pulse when someone’s wearing a protective suit, he said.