A year after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Department of Defense established the U.S. Northern Command with the mission of homeland defense and assisting civilian authorities during emergencies.
If an agricultural emergency on the scale of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak were to occur in the United States or if the single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Washington state becomes widespread, chances are Army Lt. Col. Brian V. Noland would be called on to lend a hand.
As command veterinarian of NORTHCOM, Lt. Col. Noland is the military's point man for responding to agroterrorism, animal disease outbreaks, and other agricultural events in the United States.
Headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., NORTHCOM is the ninth addition to the Defense Department's Unified Combatant Commands.
Each of the nine commands is based around the world is also responsible for carrying out U.S. military operations in a given area. For example, the area of operations for Central Command, or CENTCOM, includes Central Asia, where Operation Enduring Freedom is currently under way in Iraq.
In the months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, letters containing weaponized anthrax killed five people and heightened fears about the homeland's vulnerability to chemical, biologic, and radiologic weapons.
So in October 2002, the Defense Department established NORTHCOM, with the mission of protecting America's territory, its people, and critical infrastructure against military attacks from outside the United States.
In addition, the president or secretary of defense can direct NORTHCOM to provide military assistance to federal, state, and local governments during disasters. This past November, for instance, NORTHCOM provided several firefighting aircraft to battle the forest fires in southern California.
Among the litany of vital interests warranting protection is the nation's $22 billion agriculture industry. A naturally emerging or deliberately introduced foreign animal disease in U.S. agriculture could have severe economic and public health consequences.
In August 2003, Lt. Col. Noland transferred to NORTHCOM from Army Veterinary Command in San Antonio, Texas. His new duties entail formulating the military's response to threats to U.S. agriculture, as well as assisting some states and universities in the development of their own surveillance and emergency response plans.
The position affords the 1988 Colorado State University graduate the opportunity to work with federal agencies and participate in the Department of Agriculture's disease surveillance activities. His current focus is foreign disease outbreaks.
Before the nation became focused on homeland defense, people thought little about the safety of the food they ate. But that's all changed, given the relative ease with which some animal diseases could spread or be introduced into the country, according to Lt. Col. Noland.
"Although something like FMD wouldn't hurt people, the economic implications and international trade implications would be devastating," he said.
"The economy is an essential part of homeland defense," he continued. "If the economy goes south and the consumer loses confidence in the food supply—even though someone may not be injured—it has a devastating effect on the economy."