Army base could get more work from security agency

Sunday, July 28, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The new homeland security agency taking shape in Congress could create a bigger role for Fort Leonard Wood, the Army base in Missouri's Ozarks.

The post is the home of the U.S. Chemical School, the nation's primary training facility for handling terrorist threats. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, several Missouri lawmakers included Fort Leonard Wood in their ideas for improving how the United States prepares for the possibility of another attack.

The most recent effort is part of the homeland security measure set for Senate debate in next few days. Offered as an amendment by Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., the legislation would require that the new homeland security agency consult with the Defense Department in training those who would respond to chemical or biological attacks.

The chemical weapons training school "would be a very natural place to do their training," Carnahan said in an interview. "They very much want this to be part of their task."

Carnahan serves on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which spent the past several days debating the Senate's homeland security bill. The House was on track Friday to pass a different version of the bill.

'No place else'

Fort Leonard Wood is unique in its ability to provide this kind of training, said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., whose district includes the post.

"There's no place else to get training of such a comprehensive nature," said Skelton, senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. "The chemical school at Fort Wood teaches American soldiers the very skills and knowledge they need to combat this horrible type of warfare, and for domestic first responders, that of course would be the proper place to receive such training."

At Fort Leonard Wood, chemical school trainees take courses of one to three weeks on responding to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agents. Soldiers and civilians alike have trained there.

For example, the Coast Guard sent 30 members of the National Strike Force there in January to learn how to spot nerve agents, scan people for radiation and respond in other ways to terrorist attacks. Afterward, some headed for duty to the Olympic games in Salt Lake City.

Trainees take classes and perform exercises in buildings throughout the post, said Col. Tom Klewin, the chemical school's assistant commandant. Inside one building, trainees are exposed to actual chemical agents, he said.

"We use chemical agents in an enclosed facility that is completely safe, but we put soldiers and civilians in that environment to show that the detection equipment actually works, and that the protective equipment actually works," Klewin said.

The chemical school was housed at the old Fort McClellan in Alabama before the Army moved it to Missouri.

At odds on labor

The Missouri Democrats are at odds with President Bush on the most contentious issue in the homeland security measure: whether Bush should have broad powers to waive labor union protections of the new agency's 170,000 employees for specific national security reasons.

The Republican-controlled House has voted to give Bush that authority, while the Democratic Senate has not.

"I don't think they should get less rights than they have now," Carnahan said of employees in the new agency.

Skelton said, "I don't know why you'd want to treat these folks any different."

Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo., said the issue would apply only to about one-quarter of the 170,000 employees who would work for the new agency. He added that he would not let the issue keep him from voting in favor of the overall homeland security bill.

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