No vacation for Nebraska soldiers deployed to hurricane-ravaged Virgin Islands

Nebraska National Guard soldiers help clean-up a St. Croix elementary school (photo courtesy Nebraska National Guard)
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November 29, 2017 - 2:16pm

The Nebraska National Guard has been on hurricane duty non-stop since late August. Hundreds of Army and Air National Guard soldiers have deployed to Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico (currently) for relief and recovery operations. Mike Tobias talked with soldiers who just returned from the Virgin Islands.

“Paradise Found” is what one tourist brochure calls the U.S. Virgin Islands. That was before Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, and hit hard. Fifty-six soldiers and two airmen from the Nebraska National Guard’s 67th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade got there in mid-October, a month after the hurricanes hit. Their task was coordinating other Guard soldiers, a couple thousand when they first arrived, sent from other places to help the islands recover.

When they arrived, soldiers were greeted by massive destruction that reminded them of a large tornado. It was quickly obvious to Master Sgt. Rachel Stafford when they first landed in St. Croix. “You could see the devastation from the airplane. There were a lot of blue tarps on the roofs. There was a lot of trees and debris pretty much everywhere,” she said. “Downed power lines everywhere across the road, hanging over the road. Telephone poles hanging over the road. Piles of debris everywhere, dead animals everywhere.”

“We drove every day by a tree that I'll bet the base of the tree was probably 20 feet wide by 20 feet deep, and the hurricane had just uprooted this whole thing and brought the concrete up,” recalled Command Sgt. Maj. Shawn Griffith, who compared the damage to what he saw as a child when a tornado ripped through his Omaha neighborhood in 1975. "That just kind of explained the power of the hurricane that had really done the damage there."

Although it was a month after Irma and Maria struck, the Nebraska soldiers saw that life was still very difficult for the people of the Virgin Islands.

“The power was still out everywhere on the island. People that had generators were using those,” said Maj. Alex Zeller. “A lot of standing water everywhere, so E. coli was one of the biggest worries that we saw. Mold was a big concern also. It was complete devastation. People were getting by, but it was not easy for them I'm sure."

“The average person from the Virgin Islands was, and still to a great degree, living in a world of darkness, especially in the evening,” said Col. Craig Strong, 67th Brigade commander. “When we left there about 25 percent of their grid was up. “The water supply was in question during parts of the recovery phase; that was improving while we were there. Food scarcity was improving while we were there. Food distribution, through commercial means, was able to improve and the stores were getting stocked again.”

Here’s more from our interviews with the four soldiers shortly after they returned from the Virgin Islands deployment.

“What were you doing on a day-to-day basis?”

Some of the damage that Nebraska National Guard soldiers saw when they arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands (photos courtesy Nebraska National Guard)


Soldiers from the 67th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade provided "command and control" support, coordinating the efforts of Guard soldiers from 31 states (photo courtesy Nebraska National Guard)


Nebraska soldiers also helped clean-up a cemetery, school and streets (photo courtesy Nebraska National Guard)


Soldiers from the 67th Brigade marched in a Veteran's Day parade on the island of St. Croix (photo courtesy Nebraska Nebraska National Guard)



The November issue of the Nebraska National Guard's "Prairie Soldier" publication includes several articles on all the recent Hurricane-related deployments.

In a May episode of NET's "Speaking of Nebraska" program, Mike Tobias talked about the changing structure, deployments and challenges for the Nebraska National Guard with Major Gen. Daryl Bohac, Nebraska National Guard adjutant general; and Lt. Col. Jan Behn, Nebraska Army National Guard.

STRONG: “We were the command and control of the operating units.” (The 67th coordinated the work of National Guard soldiers in the Virgin Islands from 31 other states.)

ZELLER: “We spent a lot of our time in a building behind computers. Underneath of us we had military police that would augment the Virgin Islands police departments. We had some medical professionals that were out there working hand-in-hand with the hospitals that were degraded because of the power issue. We had helicopters that we were using to transport people around the islands. We had some transportation logistical assets to move supplies around. We assisted FEMA a lot with that, and VITEMA, which is the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency.”

GRIFFITH: “For the most part, everybody was working probably a 12 to 14 hour day. We ran 24 hours as far as our headquarters, so everybody was about six days straight of 12 to 14 hours.”

ZELLER: “We had some people that we could carve out from time to time to go and help clean up the cemeteries, clean up the schools.”

STAFFORD: “For the schools, it was a lot of throwing away damaged books, damaged desks, sweeping, mopping, wiping walls. They really took on a lot of water damage it appeared, so we separated all of the damaged equipment and damaged books from the stuff that was still able to be used, and then reorganized the classrooms with some of the contractors and teachers that were there to help and assist. Then for the cemeteries, we went out and pretty much did a ‘police call,’ or picked up trash. The flowers and artifacts that they had left for their loved ones had blown all over the cemetery, so if it was broken, or damaged, or just spread all over the place, we picked it up.”

STRONG: “Doing basic cleanup just seemed so much more inspirational when you knew that you were helping your brothers and sisters from the Virgin Islands who had really just been knocked down.”

“The hazards of working in a place with such destruction”

STAFFORD: “We tried to put as many precautions in front of things as we could, and making sure that our soldiers or airmen that were part of the force helping out for the hurricane relief were as protected as they could be from mold, or dust, or any of the hazards from live power lines to just downed dead power lines.”

STRONG: “Everything from the Zika virus is a possibility to black mold is a possibility in certain environments. Electrical hazards were always an issue. Also, from bent metal sheets that had flown off of roofs, to glass and other debris, were hazards as well. The environmental hazards as far as the weather, as well. It's a very hot and humid environment. The driving was always a high adventure, considering the fact that most of the street signs no longer were functioning, street lights weren't functioning, no traffic signals, pitch black in the middle of the night, a lot of free range chickens, turkeys, and pigs, and coupled with the fact that you had electrical lines strewn all over the place, and we drove on the left side of the road.”

“The difference of being on a combat deployment and something like this”

STAFFORD: “I think a big difference would just be the dynamics of working with an emergency management agency, especially when other countries had sent theirs. You get a mix when you're overseas on a normal combat deployment as well, but not so much on the emergency management side. So it was a different dynamic than even when an emergency happens in Nebraska. So we all had to figure out how to work together, and who was really in command of what, and who could pass down what orders. I think overseas in a normal combat deployment, it's more clear-cut, and what you're doing, and how your operations and your orders come down, and how you execute them, it was definitely different in the Virgin Islands.”

STRONG: “I will submit that our soldiers and airmen have a special sense of commitment when it comes to the homeland, obviously, because it's where people feel that they're making a direct difference to their fellow citizens, and it's a mission that hardly everyone needs to be directed to and welcome the opportunity to come and help support our fellow citizens. Very similar in both the homeland and the war fight require a certain skillset that are fairly similar, a sense of purpose, and being resilient, and mission focused, though the environments might change. I think the values that we hold up and what we're attempting to complete a mission endure, regardless. There's something special about when soldiers and airmen are able to help reach out and support our fellow citizens here at home.

ZELLER: “In the end the people are people. I think they just want normalcy. That's what I've seen across deployments to Afghanistan and my movement down to the Virgin Islands. There's devastation around them and all they really want is to live their lives, work their jobs and feel like they can go to work every day and come home and be safe.”

“Images that will stick with you from that month in the Virgin Islands?"

ZELLER: “The power lines being down all over and the devastation was definitely something that, it was rough to see that. But as we left I think it was in a lot better place. Some of the stuff that was the most amazing was the people there and how grateful they were, how nice they were to us. It seemed like everybody from the Virgin Islands who we met was just very grateful for us to be there to help out.”

GRIFFITH: “Just the little things. When I turn the faucet on at home and I stick the glass under it, I don't worry about drinking that water. Whereas over there, we didn't drink the water out of the faucet. We were drinking bottled water. I turn a light switch on, the light goes on. We've become such a cell phone society. You just think your cell phones are going to work everywhere and oftentimes it didn't work over there. I suppose a lot of the little things that you take for granted.”

STRONG: “We were at a gas station, and I was in uniform, and there was an elderly gentleman from the Virgin Islands. As I went into the gas station to get some water he stood at attention, and saluted me, and said, ‘Thank you, sir, for your service.’ That just stuck with me. Everything that they're going through, and that sense of respect, and honor that he extended seemed very heartfelt, and sincere, and it really stuck out in my mind.”

STAFFORD: “The power of wind, just all the poles leaning in the same direction, all the trees leaning in the same direction. The other thing was just the devastation to the homes and animals. There was a lot of animals that were roaming around. I mean pigs, cows, goats, horses, cats, dogs, you name it. They were just running around.”



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