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California National Guardsmen Help Rescue Flood Victims

By Petty Officer 3rd Class John R. Guardiano, USN
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 4, 2006 – Soldiers from the California National Guard helped rescue torrential flood victims last weekend while working in tandem with civilian firefighters and swift-water rescuers.

Capt. David Marciano of the Russian River Fire Department in Guerneville, Calif., said the guardsmen were "indispensable."

"There's no other way to describe what they did," he said. "We don't know how we'd have managed without them."

Northern California was wracked with weekend flooding that threatened life and property. Water crested to nearly six feet deep, rendering cars useless and roads non-traversable, Marciano noted.

California National Guard headquarters was placed on alert Dec. 29; individual guardsmen then were called up late the following day. By the morning of Dec. 31, said Army Staff Sgt. James Saleda, he and his fellow soldiers from the 579th Engineering Battalion in Santa Rosa had left to provide emergency services and other life-saving assistance to Californians trapped by the floods.

"Disaster relief is one of the California Army National Guard's primary functions," said Saleda, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the operation. "The troops on the ground worked long hours in arduous and dangerous conditions without complaint. In fact, the troops were volunteering for any mission that came up," he said.

"This is the kind of stuff that kept me in the National Guard for 19 years," explained Sgt. Robert Willeford -- "going to floods and fires and helping people out. You get a really good feeling from doing that."

Saleda and Willeford were part of a nine-man team that rescued dozens of people in and around Guerneville and Forrestville Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, respectively. A second 10-man team from the 579th Engineering Battalion rescued an estimated 30 to 40 people in nearby Ukiah on Dec. 31. A command cell with three soldiers, meanwhile, provided supply and relief efforts, repairing and replacing damaged vehicles and equipment.

Two helicopter crews from the 126th Medical Company (Air Ambulance) also were on standby. One of two HH-60L Black Hawk helicopters was called upon for service, but had to turn back because of inclement weather, said Capt. Mirtha Villarreal, a public affairs officer for the California Guard.

The setback was temporary, though, because the 579th had large 2.5- and 5-ton vehicles and Humvees that were able to navigate well the flooded roadways.

"The roads were completely cut off - we're talking five- to six-foot-deep water," Marciano said. "Without those National Guard vehicles, I don't know what we would have done. You would have needed a boat."

A local fireman rode along on each National Guard vehicle. Saleda said the firemen led the way with evacuation and emergency medical services, but that the rescue efforts truly were a model of interagency and civilian-military cooperation.

"The firemen helped a lot with communications and directions; they knew the lay of the land. Some of their guys grew up there. Having them was essential," Saleda said.

Another key service that the Guard provided was transporting local water department officials to Guerneville's water pumping station. The tanks there were running out of water and needed to be refilled; however, because of the floods, the pumping station was damaged and completely inaccessible, Saleda said. But with their 5-ton vehicles, the California National Guard ferried technical workers to the pumping station, which soon was fixed and on line.

Saleda and several of his fellow soldiers served in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Iraq and California missions are "very similar in that you're helping people," he said. "I'm glad that I got to do both; but the state missions are just different.

"Directly affecting the lives of people that you live with and around is something special," he explained. "I can't tell you how many people came up to us and said, 'Hey, this is so-and-so.' Our guys often talked to the locals when they had a chance. It was just nice."

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