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Vigilant Guard: California National Guard Homeland Response Force Prepares for Worst 
Around the Guard 
Airmen from the California and Arizona National Guard combine to form a Fatality Search and Recovery Team on Nov. 4, 2011, during the 2011 Arizona Statewide Vigilant Guard Exercise in Phoenix. During a recovery training assignment, they prepare to load a simulated nuclear blast victim onto a gurney. Shown: Senior Airman Jonathan Massey, Staff Sgt. Margarita Chavez, Tech. Sgt. Jacob Sulwer and Staff Sgt. Aaron Bisher. (Army National Guard photo by Spc. Edward Siguenza) (Released)
By Army Spc. Edward Siguenza 69th Public Affairs Detachment 

PHOENIX (11/07/11) – They’re the last in line in any catastrophe, but the first to be relied upon to bring closure.

During the 2011 Arizona Statewide Vigilant Guard Exercise in Phoenix, National Guard Airmen from California and the host state united to form a critical supporting element: a Fatality Search-and-Recovery Team.

Vigilant Guard is preparing the California National Guard’s 49th Military Police Brigade to assume the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Region IX military disaster coordinator, or Homeland Response Force.

Numerous units with a multitude of capabilities, including security, medical triage, and decontamination make up the structure of a HRF.

Seven members of the California Air National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing, based out of Channel Islands, are part of that force. They joined nearly two dozen troops from the Arizona Air National Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing out of Tucson, Ariz., to use Vigilant Guard for training enhancement.

Their mission: Collect the dead.

“It’s one of those things that most people don’t like to do, but it’s something that must be done,” said Air National Guard Master Sgt. Mike Hawkins, team leader. “You can’t just leave dead bodies out there. People need to know what happened to family members. We help give them answers. We help bring closure.”

Vigilant Guard was a training mission that brought civilian and military responders together to test communications, coordinate recovery efforts and create a plan to deal with a large-scale state emergency.

For the citizens of the sixth-largest city in the U.S., the scenario was a simulated flood followed by a 10-kiloton improvised nuclear detonation. The devastation would be vast: buildings leveled, radioactive fallout, fires. The FSRT would have their work cut out for them.

The crew alternated going into a simulated contaminated area to extract bodies – and in some cases, body parts – after other military elements fulfilled their disaster-recovery roles. Priority always goes to victims alive and in need of help, says Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Carolyn Haynes, team coordinator, that’s why FSRT is a step “in the final round.” They strictly deal with the dead.

“We know part of our process is to help provide closure to families,” Haynes said. “We see that part. It’s more than just recovering people. It’s about helping answer questions.”

Keep in mind the bodies they find aren’t necessarily bodies at all. They’re trained to recover decomposed corpses, in the worst of human conditions, and in wretched locations. Remains are usually dismembered and/or burned.

“That’s part of our training, to make sure everyone’s strong enough and mentally stable to withstand what they’re going to see,” added Haynes. “This is also very physical. We go in with all this gear and equipment. It takes a lot out of us physically and mentally.”

“If I was in this situation, I would want someone to help me,” said Air National Guard Senior Airman Jonathan Massey. “I think about my son when I do this. You just got to be strong and be able to handle this.”

Donning protective gear, the FSRTs were called upon to retrieve a deceased body. After completing required documentation, they unrolled a thick plastic bag near the corpse. Gently, they placed the remains in the bag and zipper-sealed it shut.

All in a day’s work for the FSRTs. A day of dealing with the deceased.