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Defense Department Saves National Guard WMD Unit That Helped in Boston

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Members of the 24th National Guard Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team participate in an exercise last year at Fort Hamilton, N.Y. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday said the Pentagon stepped back from plans announced last month to eliminate the team and another WMD response unit based in Florida (New York National Guard photo). Members of the 24th National Guard Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team participate in an exercise last year at Fort Hamilton, N.Y. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday said the Pentagon stepped back from plans announced last month to eliminate the team and another WMD response unit based in Florida (New York National Guard photo).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Defense Department was poised as recently as last month to dismantle a National Guard crisis team that assisted in the emergency response to the bombings at Monday's Boston Marathon.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on March 29 informed lawmakers in writing of plans to dismantle the New York-based 24th National Guard Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, as well as a similar WMD unit housed in Florida, House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) said on Tuesday. The units were to cease operations by late June, Hagel said in a letter that did not offer a reason for the decision.

Members of the New York team "responded to the Boston Marathon bombings," where twin blasts killed three people and wounded close to 200 near the end of the course, Young said.

The Pentagon move, now reversed, would have been at least the second attempt to eliminate the two teams as a cost-saving method. New York and Florida both have two of the full-time units that would provide assistance to civil authorities following a biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear incident. California also has two, while other U.S. states and territories are alloted one team.

Young noted that his committee had authorized funding for the teams in a fiscal 2013 defense bill.

"Congress is very, very supportive of those teams," the lawmaker said. He pressed Hagel and other top Pentagon officials during a Tuesday budget hearing to explain the reasoning behind the planned elimination of the units.

Hagel, though, said his department reversed its decision and requested funding for the teams in its fiscal 2014 budget proposal.

"I think the Congress was informed of that [in] the last few days, and we put the money back in," the Pentagon chief said. He later reaffirmed his department's backing for the teams in response to questioning by Representative Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).

The roughly 20-person New York unit -- based at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn -- dispatched five personnel to Boston after receiving a request last Friday from the Massachusetts state government, said Eric Durr, public information director for the New York state Military and Naval Affairs Division.

"Anytime you've got a high-key event where there's lots of people, there's usually a ... unit from a civil support team in the area to provide assistance to first responders," Durr told Global Security Newswire by telephone. He declined to discuss specifics of how the 24th personnel provided assistance following the Monday attack.

The National Guard said operating a second WMD unit in New York requires about $500,000 each year, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) indicated in a 2012 press release.

The motivation behind the Pentagon about-face was not immediately clear. Defense Department officials did not respond by press time to requests for comment.

All 57 WMD civil support teams are included in the National Guard’s fiscal 2014 budget justification, which makes specific reference to the additional units in New York and Florida. Short-term spending measures have financed the teams during the current budget cycle.

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