Imagine one of America’s biggest fears coming true — a nuclear-armed despot pushing the button and launching atomic fury on the United States.
The military would call upon the Joint Task Force Civil Support headquartered at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., led by McComb native Maj. Gen. Jeff Van, to lead the response.
Van, who took command of the unit on Aug. 28, leads 5,200 servicemen at 36 bases ready to respond to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.
Its most recent high-profile mission involved the COVID-19 outbreak in New York and New Jersey early during the coronavirus pandemic.
“This headquarters has a very unique position as we’re the only chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear joint task force in the nation,” Van said.
While Van’s mission is to react to serious threats that could cause mass casualties, he said his unit is up to the job.
“If something were to happen, most definitely we would be called in on the national level,” he said. “The chances of that happening is very low. The United States is very secure. That would be one of our worst nightmares is something nuclear in the homeland.”
Van, 51, has 31 years of military experience, enlisting in the Mississippi National Guard after graduating from Ole Miss. He credits much of his service in the Guard — as well as his Mississippi upbringing — for preparing him for his leadership roles in the military.
“You never can tell where you’re going to be in your next mission. I’m proud of McComb and where I’m from,” he said.
His service with McComb’s National Guard unit has taken him to Bosnia, Iraq and Kuwait.
He’s been a platoon leader, company executive officer, company commander, brigade executive officer, battalion commander, deputy brigade commander and brigade commander, a role that had him leading 5,000-plus guardsmen from around Mississippi.
He was promoted to brigadier general and was later tapped to serve as deputy commanding general of the 35th Infantry Division, based out of Missouri and Kansas during the unit’s service in 16 southwest Asian countries as a part of Operation Spartan Shield.
Van said his leadership roles within the 155th propelled him to his current position wit the Army. For much of the Iraq war, armored brigade combat teams made up of Guardsmen like those serving in the 155th were a major combat force.
Leading such a unit spread his influence and military stature “outside of the Mississippi state boundaries,” he said.
“You’re talking to congressmen, you’re talking to generals,” Van said. “It’s a big federal asset that gets mobilized all the time. You’re always touching some kind of national level.”
Without his Guard service, “I would have never gotten that opportunity or that invite” to lead the joint task force, he said.
And Van sees some similarities between his leadership in the Guard and his current position. As commander of the 155th, he led a brigade made up of units spread out across 48 communities in Mississippi.
The 36 bases on which the Joint Task Force Civil Support has a footprint calls for a similar ability to lead remotely.
Both have many components, including aviation, logistics, medical and general operations.
“This headquarters is a true joint command,” Van said. “In this command I have airmen, we have sailors, we have Marines. There’s a large civilian footprint.”
Van said he’s honored to have been selected for his current role.
“I’m very humbled, I’m very happy to have even been considered for this position,” he said. “And from McComb High School — Mississippi public education.”