News & Politics

Nuclear War Play

Replete with fake blood and hired nuclear fallout victim actors, the Pentagon is in the midst of simulating one of the largest nuclear detonation exercises ever.
Islamic terrorists steal highly enriched uranium from Pakistan, transport it to Somalia, then on to Mexico, where they smuggle it across the U.S. border. A 10-kiloton bomb is assembled and detonated, killing 6,000 people instantly.

Several thousand more have serious burns and radiation sickness. Hundreds of thousands flee in panic and seek shelter. Two hundred square miles are contaminated. National Guardsmen from several states as well as the Army, Air Force, Marines, special forces, firefighters, police and the Red Cross are mobilized to rescue the injured and secure the peace.

For Levi Hall, 20, the nuclear detonation couldn't have come at a better time. His girlfriend just told him she was pregnant. He needed money badly. "I work at a factory. I took vacation to actually be able to do this," he said, his arm and face smeared with fake blood as he crouched at the base of Rubble Pile 2, collecting $15 an hour playing a victim at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center (MUTC) in southern Indiana where the U.S. Northern Command (Northcom) is simulating one of the largest nuclear detonation (Nudet) exercises ever. The MUTC, a sprawling complex taken over by the Indiana National Guard in 2005 had previously housed and cared for hundreds of mentally disabled residents. The Army recently earmarked $100 million to turn it into a year-round training center for urban warfare.

Making the unthinkable manageable is painstaking work. Yet this is precisely what homeland security officials believe is possible. According to a story last week in the San Francisco Chronicle, "a high-level group of government and military officials has been quietly preparing an emergency survival program" in case of a nuclear attack. Last month, 41 participants met for a strategy meeting in Washington, D.C., dubbed "The Day After," according to the Chronicle. They urged local governments and individuals to build underground bomb shelters, and prevent evacuations of attacked areas to avoid traffic jams and the suspension of civil liberties, the Chronicle reported.


On day two of the drill, dubbed "Vigilant Guard" and running May 10-18, rescue prospects were looking bleak for several of the fake victims. They had arrived in the early morning at a brick building with a Sears sign taped on the window. They were "moolaged," a term used by the military and Cubic Defense, the huge civilian contractor charged with choreographing the event and supplying fake blood and snack bars that were chewed and spit out to simulate puking. But by noon, there were no rescuers in site.

Some of the victims stood on the pavement playing hacky sack in front of the fake shopping center. Jessica Massie, 25, her left arm bloodied, said she normally worked for animal control. "Our town has dogs running at large and they pick them up and bring them in. I get $8 an hour. I took off work to come here for a week." The previous day, she was "in the rubble pile, and they put debris on me and I was paralyzed from the waist down. And I had a head and a neck wound, and then I started vomiting like real-world vomiting, and they put me on a stretcher." When asked if she thought it would be possible to survive a nuclear attack, she said, "If the Army gets in here and helps us, and everybody does the right thing and no one panics, then I think there's a good chance that some people survive but not everybody."

By 3 p.m., the rescuers still hadn't arrived. Sitting on picnic benches in front of the fake Sears store were two health specialists, one from the Centers for Disease Control and one from FEMA. Both had been flown in to observe the exercise. Asked if he felt such exercises were productive, the CDC official said he had never witnessed a drill that did not provide some useful information. He had witnessed TopOff 2, the 2003 Homeland Security exercise that simulated the detonation of a radiological dispersal device (RDD) in Seattle and released pneumonic plague into the Chicago metro area. From that experience, the CDC last month posted on its website protocols for the removal of radiated human remains.

It took a few years, but protocols have been established and he recently completed a training video with the New York City medical examiner's office on radioactive human remains disposal.

At 6 p.m., with no rescuers to be seen, both health specialists left. Waiting patiently were several videographers and photographers from the National Guard who were making a documentary to show members of Congress the benefit of Nudet simulations. Finally, two men, in all-encompassing yellow suits, part of a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear enhanced package (CBRNE) team, appeared over a grassy hill riding a four-wheel vehicle. They approached slowly. They dismounted the vehicle and opened a fire hydrant. They took water samples. They retreated. One victim pounded on the window of the Sears building, hoping in vain for rescue.

Fifty yards away on debris pile 2, where Levi Hall had already put in a 13-hour day hoping to go until midnight, so that at the end of the week he might make time and a half, first-responders had arrived and tagged him with a priority 2 label. Not far away, at the top of the pile, was a bloodied Chris Dowden, 26, recently returned from military service in Afghanistan. Blood dripped down his shirt. He was tagged priority 1. But just as the first responders started strapping victims on to stretchers, a belligerent mob wielding sticks and fake rocks charged the rescuers, screaming, waving their sticks, egged on by a Cubic director. The angry mob made off with a few stretchers. "Make a good snowboard," one fake rioter said to another. Swat police were called in to maintain order. After a few smoke bombs and an arrest, the rescuers returned to tend to the injured.
Nina Berman is a photographer and the author of "Purple Hearts: Back From Iraq." The images from the story are by Nina Berman, and more can be seen at ninaberman.com.
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