Forty-five Army civilians who voluntarily deployed to the Mediterranean Sea to destroy Syria's declared chemical weapons stockpile were honored by Department of Defense officials in a ceremony Oct. 8.
U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center mission commander Tim Blades got up from his seat and walked across the stage without looking at the handful of DOD stakeholders sitting to his left. He didn't look out to the nearly 500 friends, families and colleagues sitting offstage to his right either. When he reached the podium, he looked only at the 45 honorees sitting in the front rows.
"I think I'd rather be out at sea," he said with a laugh. It wasn't like Blades to feel comfortable in the spotlight. Instead, he directed the attention to the crew of which he said he was simply a part.
Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Alan Estevez presented 12 Meritorious Civilian Service Awards and 33 Superior Civilian Service Awards to members of the multi-agency team that completed the historic mission.
"Today's ceremony is an example of how science and technology, combined with a world-class workforce and the great teamwork of all you players out there, can deliver unique capabilities to our nation," Maj. Gen. John F. Wharton, commanding general of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command said. "To me, it's another great example of rapid acquisition process to meet the operational needs of our nation."
The civilian volunteers recognized at the event are highly trained field operators, technicians and chemists who have dedicated themselves to eliminating the world of weapons of mass destruction.
In January, the team deployed for more than six months to answer a call by the DOD to help the international community in its efforts to eliminate 600 metric tons of Syria's highly toxic chemicals in 42 days. They had no reportable accidents or releases to the environment.
"As any operator of this group can tell you, it was not easy," Blades said. "Everyone went above and beyond. Everyone thought and worked outside the box. Apollo 13 had nothing on you."
In February 2013, members of Team CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives), a cluster of DOD organizations at Aberdeen Proving Ground dedicated to countering weapons of mass destruction, developed the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, or FDHS. In less than six months, ECBC spearheaded the design and manufacturing of the transportable neutralization technology, as well as the chemistry behind the neutralization process that met the 99.9 percent destruction rate standard set by the Chemical Weapons Convention.
"The FDHS had the smoothest transition from a prototype to an operating system that I have ever seen in my 36 years at ECBC," George Roberts, ECBC chemical engineer and a recipient of the Superior Civilian Service Award, said. "To get a perspective of the magnitude of this accomplishment, consider that when we destroyed the stockpile of mustard agent at APG, we built a factory complex that spanned 18 acres. The FDHS was just 700 feet by 100 feet."
When compared with other chemical demilitarization missions, it was an incredible accomplishment, said Carmen Spencer, the Joint Program Executive Officer for Chemical and Biological Defense.
According to Spencer, the amount of chemical agent destroyed during the FDHS mission was three times more than the stockpile destroyed at APG years ago, and that took 34 months to eliminate.
Teams installed two units of the FDHS on a ship, the MV Cape Ray, which was specially retrofitted to accommodate the self-sufficient, redundant system, including nearly a dozen critical components: water pumps, water tanks, system air compressors, waste containers, reagents, an on-site laboratory, breathing air compressors, chemical agent filtration systems, power generators and distribution and storage containers.
Crews worked in 12-hour shifts to maintain 24/7 operations. During an off-shift, people tried to connect with family back home via email or Skype, and tried to catch up on sleep. Living quarters in a 40-by-8-foot Connex freight container held four people.
"I have done hazardous operations for all of my adult life and could not be more proud," Blades said. "Of the volunteers who actually executed the destruction of Syria's most toxic stockpile onboard the Cape Ray. I cannot imagine any other group of people in the world who could have done this."
"At the time, no one envisioned a shipboard option, but when that became the option of choice, you didn't blink," Rebecca Hersman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction, said. "You just got it done, and we couldn't be more proud."
"Throughout the effort, you have demonstrated what has always made the U.S. Army special," Hersman said. "You were asked to step up and you did so as quiet professionals who never sought the spotlight but only focused on the mission. As a result of your efforts, these chemicals will never be used to kill or injure a human being."
Destroying Syria's declared stockpile of chemical weapons on behalf of the international community has not only made the world a safer place, but has shown that the United States can lead unprecedented efforts to eliminate threats as they emerge, officials said.
"It's a very dangerous world out there," said U.S. Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, who spoke at the ceremony. "The things that are happening throughout the world are scary. We were called on because of our expertise to do something very important, not only for the United States of America, but for the world."
Ruppersberger read from a Congressional Record recognizing Blades for his "unparalleled expertise" in demilitarization missions. Blades later echoed the sentiment to his team.
"Beyond your expertise and skill set it was your willingness to extend beyond your comfort zone, to take on new roles and responsibilities and keep safety at the forefront of your thoughts and actions that made the difference. You looked out for one another. You collaborated and problem solved and established a rhythm to get the job done," Blades said. "You embraced adversity on all levels, from technical trouble shooting to the physical and emotional stresses that tested your endurance. Your mental toughness was incredible. You deserve every bit of recognition for your hard work."