‘Ex­or­cists’ pro­tect against hid­den dan­gers

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA - By CUI JIA in Korla, Xin­jiang

Un­like most sol­diers, Zhang Li­dong is trained to fight an in­vis­i­ble en­emy.

“Our job is to re­move the de­mon that nor­mal peo­ple can­not see,” the 25-year-old pri­vate said of his unit, which is trained to deal with chem­i­cal, bi­o­log­i­cal and nu­clear threats that could cause mass ca­su­al­ties. “That’s why we call our­selves ‘The Ex­or­cists’,” he added.

Zhang, whose an­ti­chem­i­cal war­fare reg­i­ment is based in Bei­jing, com­manded the two Chi­nese crews that com­peted in this month’s In­ter­na­tional Army Games in the desert near Korla, Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

His team took part in the Safe En­vi­ron­ment event be­tween Aug 2 and 8, which saw each three-mem­ber crew drive a Chi­nese-made War­rior mil­i­tary SUV through an ob­sta­cle course while car­ry­ing out set tasks, in­clud­ing shoot­ing tar­gets, iden­ti­fy­ing toxic sub­stances and de­tect­ing ra­dioac­tive sources. All the sol­diers wore pro­tec­tive gear and gas masks.

“We al­ways train in the gear, so it isn’t a bur­den in ac­tual com­bat,” Zhang said, al­though he con­ceded that the sim­u­lated sce­nar­ios were still very dif­fer­ent to the real thing.

Zhang took part in the same event at the 2015 In­ter­na­tional Army Games in Rus­sia. When he re­turned to China on Aug 13, he was sent di­rectly to Tian­jin, which had just been rocked by a mas­sive blast caused by haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als stored in a ware­house.

The late-night ex­plo­sion started a blaze that burned for days, with eight sec­ondary blasts re­ported on Aug 15. The fi­nal death toll was 173, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial data.

“Al­though we car­ried out the same pro­ce­dure (as at the army games) to iden­tify chem­i­cals at the scene in Tian­jin, I was shocked by what I saw,” Zhang re­called. “Ev­ery­thing was gray and life­less. We also

had the task of search­ing for bod­ies.”

Colonel Ma Guo­jie, com­man­der of the anti-chem­i­cal war­fare reg­i­ment, said to en­sure his sol­diers are com­bat-ready, they are trained in units rather than as in­di­vid­u­als.

“They need to be a strong fight­ing force first and fore­most. Our goal is to cre­ate an anti-chem­i­cal war­fare force that has out­stand­ing tech­ni­cal and mil­i­tary skills,” he said.

China es­tab­lished a new anti-chem­i­cal war­fare reg­i­ment in Xin­jiang this year.

Spe­cial­ist sol­diers need to be ac­cu­rate when iden­ti­fy­ing dan­gers “be­cause we don’t get a sec­ond chance”, said Pri­vate Gao Pan, 24, the driver on Zhang’s team. He said crews also need to con­stantly up­grade their knowl­edge on toxic sub­stances and an­ti­dotes to cope with the ever-chang­ing com­bat en­vi­ron­ments.

“There is no time to think about death dur­ing a mis­sion. We’re al­ways laser-fo­cused on the pro­ce­dure,” Gao said.

Guo Zaizhu and Rao Jun con­trib­uted to this story.

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