Chemical Officers: What DO you do?

US Army Chemical Officers play a vital role in the survivability of the US Army in the most extreme, deadly, scary, and horrific extremes of warfare: chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare.  Despite the sound of that, Chemical Officers today are not engaged in offensive use of chemical, biological or nuclear warfare, but rather the defense against it.  Since ancient times, warring nations have sought to use any and all means to destroy each other – lobbing dead cows over the castle walls in medieval times, throwing scorpion- or snake-filled clay pots at enemy ships in ancient Roman and Grecian times, or even the use of the mysterious “Greek fire”.  The first real use of synthetically-produced chemical warfare occurred in World War I.  Times have changed since 1917, and even more rapidly since 2001.  Biological weapons and some chemical weapons have become very easy to acquire, and are being used by terrorists and nation-states today.  So the role of a Chemical Officer has become even more vital in the US Army.

But what happens when they bring their knowledge of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) to the civilian sector?  Where can they work and what can they do?

Today’s Chemical Officers are trained in the “development, integration, and employment of tactical capabilities that identify, prevent, and mitigate the entire range of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats and hazards through CBRN operations; that support operational and strategic objectives to combat weapons of mass destruction (WMD) through nonproliferation, counterproliferation, and CBRN consequence management” (DA Pam 600-3).  They work at all levels of the military from platoon-sized elements (20-30 people), through Joint Task Force or Army Corps levels.  Today, many Chemical officers have hard science degrees (biology, chemistry, meteorology, chemical engineering, etc.).  This translates into very analytical-minded individuals.  They are also adept at consequence management and risk analysis/mitigation.  These skills are equally important in the civilian sector as they are in the military sector.

So are they best suited for government support after the military, like in the Department of Homeland Security?  Sure, that is one option.  But they can easily apply their unique skills to preventing chemical leaks in manufacturing plants, minimizing risks to local populations at home or abroad, analyzing risk in any environment, or even understanding the impact of weather on potential events.  They can be a safety officers, risk analysts, subject matter experts, or even chemical engineers, lab technicians, or general managers in a variety of non-military or government related career fields.

I spent my first five years as a chemical officer in the US Army.  I struggled with translating that skill into civilian terms.  I had to sit and think long and hard about what skills I learned that I could translate.  With the help of a recruiter, we translated that aspect of my military career into operations support.  A Chemical officer in a battalion (or higher) of the US Army is considered a special staff officer.  Special staff officers are specialists in their career fields.  They are primary advisors and analysts to commanders about a wide range of issues.  They are always members of cross-functional teams.  Chemical officers tend to work for the Assistant Chief of Staff for operations (who also oversees training, plans, future and current operations).  As such, Chemical officers bring their knowledge of operational processes (current, future and planning operations) to civilian employers.  Since they are in a variety of unit organizations, they must be experts not only in their field, but also in the organization they are assigned to, as well as its capabilities.  These unique officers are the epitome of multi-disciplinarian!

My experiences as a Chemical officer are mine and mine alone, but many other Chemical officers faced or are facing some of the same struggles I did/do now.  First, most Chemical officers are looked at merely as the Unit Status Reporting officer (a very important report that must be reported all the way to the Pentagon on the readiness of an organization to deploy and conduct its wartime mission), or the famed “bugs and gas” man (a comparison to their role in dealing with biological and chemical weapons, respectively), or (my favorite) the NBC (correctly stated as Nuclear Biological and Chemical Officer, but modified by those in the military as “No Body Cares” or “Night Battle Captain”), or more often than not, simply as the extra duty officer, ball planner, or action officer.

What I learned to do early on in my career actually came from a late evening USR preparation day.  I had everything ready to go to my higher headquarters, but my Operations and Training Officer, the Executive Officer, and Commander all had to have one final review of the information.  All three had been at a golf tournament for the whole day while I prepare the report.  At the end of the tournament, the three individuals showed up at our headquarters building and sat down around the table to review everything I had prepared for the last 8 hours.  My Training and Operations officer understood it immediately; my commander understood it shortly after him; my XO couldn’t figure it out.  After about 3 more hours (and some pizza and Dr Pepper’s delivered by my wife), I was finally able to get approval from all three to submit the report.  That experience taught me the important lesson of being an expert in your field and regulations related to it.  It also opened the door for me to get various training initiatives approved.

I used my unique position to talk directly to my commander to get approval for all my training requirements.  I worked them into routine training events my unit was conducting.  Since I worked directly for the Operations and Training officer, I already knew what was coming up, and I was able to talk to him about getting my training incorporated into his plan.  Since I talked to the commander monthly for the report, I was able to get all my requirements for my unit to be trained in chemical, biological, and nuclear/radiological survivability operations.  When I left that unit after fifteen months with it, I was well-versed in the employment of cavalry scouts, tanks, scout helicopters, and combined arms maneuver.  It was an adventure from which I gleaned a lot of knowledge and experience.

Did that help me land a post-military job?  Not directly (because I had eight more years of experience in another career field), but the training in operations and planning, risk analysis, and management that I experienced, did.  What I learned sixteen years ago set me on a path that led me here.

So how does this help civilian employers hire and retain these valuable military officers?  Remember, they are multifunctional, operational-minded, and analytical.  They thrive in uncertainty.  They are quick and adept thinkers.  They can fit into many roles in any organization (private, public, or government).

So next time you meet a Chemical Officer, make sure you ask them what they do.  The story may be inspiring, but be prepared to work it out of them!

I’ve also got to put the obligatory statement that these thoughts and experiences are my own.  My main source of information comes from Department of the Army Pamphlet 600-3.  If you want more information about the Chemical Corps, a good source is the Chemical Corps Regimental Association, as well as general background information from Wikipedia.  Also the Chemical Corps School at Fort Leonard Wood, MO.

One more thing; throughout my time in the military, few times have I been able to relate to many people about my time as a Chemical Officer.  I was humbled to meet a member of the First Gas Regiment from World War II.  His experiences and stories left an indelible mark on me.  As our meeting came to an end on Veteran’s Day 2013, he pressed into my hand his unit crest – a unique emblem, and a selfless gesture.  I was moved by that man on that day.  Made me proud to call myself a Chemo!

Got any experiences you want to relate?  Share them here!  I’d love to have some comments about them!

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