WHAT NATIONAL GUARD IS ALL ABOUT: It’s Not Just About Systematically Raping Women and Looting After Hurricanes … If You Are Living And Working On The U.S. Mainland
LINCOLN — “This is what the National Guard is all about.”
If there’s any one theme that I think encapsulates the work that thousands of Army and Air National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have accomplished and continue to do over the past couple months and three hurricanes, “This is what the National Guard is all about,” comes pretty darn close.
Just consider for a moment all that has occurred since Hurricane Harvey first decimated the areas around Corpus Christi and Houston, Texas, in late August. The National Guard has responded throughout the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean Sea after three major hurricanes hit the U.S. mainland and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
For the first time in my memory, Guardsmen from across the country – often far removed from the devastating effects of these historic storms – have continuously volunteered their time and their talents to help respond to these widely separated yet equally devastating hurricanes that have affected the lives of tens of thousands of their fellow Americans.
The work has been hard, often taking place in remote areas. There, National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have worked hand-in-hand with local emergency managers and first responders to improve conditions so that life can, at least someday, begin to get back to normal.
When you consider all that’s been occurring in places like the Texas Gulf Coast, southern Florida and the Florida Keys, in Puerto Rico, and the communities of the U.S. Virgin Islands, it really should fill you with an overwhelming sense of pride in that we – all of us – belong to an incredibly remarkable organization that is doing work that no other organization in the world could do. And we’re doing it both well and with a sense of humility and deep pride.
I know. I’ve seen myself firsthand.
Let me better explain.
After several weeks of working on the Nebraska National Guard joint staff as Nebraska worked to coordinate and fill requests for support in Texas and Florida following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, I had a chance to talk with a number of Nebraska Soldiers and Airmen who had been called up for the relief missions. I did not meet a single person who didn’t say they were excited about the opportunity to serve their fellow Americans during their times of need. Not that I expected any less, but still this outward commitment to putting lives on hold to go do something for others was not only remarkable, it helped reawaken something within me that you sometimes forget about during the day-to-day hustle of everyday life: Pride. Pride in my fellow Airmen and Soldiers; Pride in my organization; Pride in my state.
I’m pretty sure that Nebraska wasn’t unique in this aspect, either.
In mid-October, I had my suspicions confirmed when I was unexpectedly invited to accompany an aircrew from the 155th Air Refueling Wing, which had been assigned to deploy Soldiers from the Nebraska Army National Guard’s 67th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade to St. Croix, where they would be taking over providing command and control operations for National Guard elements working on both St. Croix and St. Thomas from members of the Virginia Army National Guard’s 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
Following a five-hour flight from Lincoln, Nebraska, we arrived on a humid and hazy St. Croix. Meeting us were air transportation specialists from the Missouri Air National Guard’s 139th Airlift Wing in St. Joseph, Missouri, as well as Soldiers from several other states.
Because it was already twilight by the time we arrived, it was hard to know the extent of the damage on St. Croix. However, the looks and words of those who had been there for several days or weeks seemed to indicate that we had stepped into a disaster zone of epic proportions. The drive from the airbase to the hotel where we were to stay also relayed little of the damage that had occurred from both Hurricanes Irma and Maria, although the headlights of the van we rode in did occasionally show downed trees, electrical poles or metal rooftops that seemed to have bent backward by incredible forces.
One thing did stand out, however. It was incredibly dark. Few houses or stores had lights, although occasionally some did. Within a few homes, the flickering light of candles could be seen… but that was all.
Later that night, standing on the shore of what I was sure was a beautiful Caribbean beach, I looked up to what hills and mountains I could see. Here and there, lights could be seen. But by and large, they seemed far less than what I imagined I should have seen had I been here before the storms had rolled in.
The next morning, as I went for an early morning walk, the damage became much more clear. The hill and mountain ridges that surrounded the hotel were filled with houses, hotels and businesses, all of which had been lightless the night before. Many lacked roofs or showed other significant damage. Vast forests of trees had been stripped of their branches, many lying uprooted by the winds that had passed through.
Even the palm trees had been stripped on their eastern-facing sides.
Later, along the beach I had stood the evening before, one could still see remnants of the storm surge that I had been told had inundated the area during the height of the storms.
The drive back to the air base was equally sobering as more damage than I had ever seen before passed by the windows. Street lights down. Electrical poles snapped in two, the lines they once held now lying on the ground or twisted among the roof-damaged houses and businesses. Lines of cars and people moved about, going to wherever they might be headed that morning despite the damage that had been sustained by their communities, but even those signs of life seemed muted due to the fact that they had to dodge around branches, wires and other debris.
It was a sobering sight and the Nebraska Guard air crew seemed to be both humbled and awed by what they were witnessing.
But here is where my story gets interesting, at least in my mind. Arriving back at the makeshift passenger terminal, we were once again greeted by members of the Missouri Air National Guard who were busy processing the passengers we would be transporting back to their homes that morning: Soldiers from the Mississippi Army National Guard’s 298th Combat Sustainment Brigade that had been working on St. Croix and St. Thomas for the past several weeks.
There, along with other Soldiers and Airmen representing organizations from across the nation, the combined groups of Guardsmen worked together to load our KC-135R Stratotanker, process the passengers and then make sure that everyone had what they needed. Ranks, organizations, backgrounds… none of it mattered. Everyone pitched in. It was simply one team of National Guardsmen working to get important work done in a place that desperately needed important work to get done.
It was almost as if the devastation surrounding the operations had invigorated all involved to simply work a little hard and a little more efficiently.
Which gets me back to my main point. Name another organization, to include our fellow U.S. military organizations, that has a mission like this. Who else could bring together a combined team effort on St. Croix, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico or other locations made up of individuals and units from across the United States, who could – in cooperation with other civilian first responders and emergency management officials – make an impact like this?
Much has been said about the problems of the hurricane responses, which considering the scale of what has happened and what needs to occur, is probably understandable. Many, many lessons were learned from Hurricane Katrina ten years ago, and I’m sure many lessons will come out of these hurricane responses, as well.
However, at this moment I was struck with a sense of clarity that I still haven’t shaken. Standing there in the passenger terminal and then later on the tarmac where the Nebraska Air National Guard Stratotanker stood next to a Montana Air National Guard C-130 that had arrived during the night, I felt a feeling of intense pride in knowing that I’m part of one of the most unique and mission capable organizations this world has ever seen; an organization that can both help our nation fight and win wars while at the same time mobilize as a team and move hundreds and even thousands of miles away to help our fellow Americans when disaster strikes.
And that is what being a National Guardsman is all about.
The Virgin Islands National Guard’s culture of rape on St. Croix was revealed in August –just before Hurricane Irma struck.
Gov. Kenneth Mapp said that VING members who sexually assaulted and harassed subordinates would face “criminal sanctions.”
Mapp and Brig. Gen. Deborah Howell, adjutant general for the Virgin Islands, said at a press conference in mid August that an ongoing federal investigation has verified that VING members raped recruits and subordinates, and the culture within the organization has allowed predatory sexual behavior to flourish for years.
The VING was shown on satellite imagery after Hurricane Hugo Sept. 17-18, 1989 to be looting businesses on St. Croix.