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News | Oct. 26, 2018

Eustis-based task force gets new commander

By Hugh Lessig, Daily Press Joint Task Force Civil Support

Army Maj. Gen. Bill Hall sometimes uses football analogies to explain his new job at Fort Eustis, and that’s understandable: He’s attended two Super Bowls, although not as a fan.

As a military commander at Super Bowls 45 and 49, Hall focused on how authorities would respond in the event of an unthinkable disaster. For him, a Super Bowl was “a big, complex event with a lot of players,” not just the 22 guys on the field.

Now Hall finds himself directing Joint Task Force-Civil Support, a little-known command headquartered at Fort Eustis. Its job is to assist civil authorities in case of a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear disaster, CBRN for short.

The command responds only at the request of federal, state or local authorities. Its mission is strictly civil; it does not intersect with the war-fighter. And it has a lot of moving pieces.

The headquarters staff at Eustis numbers about 150, a mix of civilian employees and active-duty military, and the number can fluctuate. Should a disaster occur, Hall can mobilize up to 5,200 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines from across the country who are skilled in everything from search-and-rescue to medical operations.

Their job is to come in quickly when called — they’ll deploy within 24 hours — and provide immediate assistance, or as he put it, “run the two-minute offense.”

In 31 years of military service, Hall said this is only the second job he’s requested. He began working in the CBRN world almost 10 years ago, and for someone in his field, “this is the pinnacle assignment.”
It is the nation’s only standing CBRN task force.

He’s been on the job about 90 days, and the settling-in process has closed a personal loop: Hall was born at Fort Eustis 51 years ago when his father, Brig. Gen. Hugh Hall, returned from Vietnam and was stationed at the Army post.

Bill Hall didn’t grow up in Newport News, but he has some extended family in the area, so visiting will require a lot less travel.

Meanwhile, he’ll have plenty to do.

Part of his job involves outreach, making sure authorities know what capabilities his people can bring to a trouble spot. Hall has four smaller task forces under his command.

One provides search-and-rescue, decontamination and some medical support. Another provides additional medical help to support a local hospital system. A third involves aviation — medium- and heavy-lift capabilities with helicopters. The fourth task force is logistical. It helps Hall’s personnel sustain themselves and can assist civil authorities.

Thankfully, the task force has never deployed to real-world disaster that involves chemical weapons, a biological hazard, a nuclear bomb or a radiation emergency. One way they keep sharp is by assisting the Defense Department when it responds a natural disaster. It has sent personnel and equipment to assist in hurricane recovery, for example.

“If there are opportunities to support other elements of the Defense Department in crisis response, we will always do that,” Hall said.

They also train — a lot.

Just recently, task force staff gathered in a large room at Eustis to learn more about a tactical satellite system that will improve communication and information-sharing during emergencies.

Anytime the task force sends personnel to a disaster area, the communications system likely would be damaged, destroyed or saturated with people trying to figure out what’s going on.

The satellite system harnesses the capabilities of a 3G cellular network to improve communication across a narrow band, not the wide band that involves internet and phone calls.

Narrow-band tactical systems allow “an immediate capability to communicate to all of our partners who are there to do our mission,” said Jeff Theall, a communications engineer with the task force.

They spent a week training on the new system. Some active-duty personnel also took advantage of the training, including Navy Cmdr. Frank Kostenko.

“It’s really about robust communications,” he said. “So any tools, whether it’s translating different language or, in this case, bigger bandwidth to help us with vigorous, accurate communications, is helpful.”

As the task force mission evolves, it will look to new technology, the latest equipment and be ever mindful of emerging threats. One reason Hall asked for this job, he said, is he believes the task force is doing just that.

“The breed of civilians who want to work here are more in line with the first-responder mentality,” he said. “They want to work here. ‘They see it as a calling.”