Alabama Guard Provides Critical Disaster Response
By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service
MONTGOMERY, Ala., Sept. 3, 2005 A few months ago, Army Maj. Gen. C. Mark Bowen, the adjutant general of Alabama, met with a village leader in Afghanistan while visiting his soldiers who were deployed to support the war on terror. The village leader, Bowen said, walked up to an Alabama National Guard officer and hugged him. The Afghani leader later told Bowen that he didn't want the officer's battalion to leave Afghanistan. The Alabama unit had been providing security to the region where the village is located.
Army Maj. Gen. C. Mark Bowen and a staff officer discuss Alabama National Guard disaster relief operations in the new Joint Operation Center at the Guard's state headquarters in Montgomery, Ala.. U.S. Army photo by Capt. Steve Alvarez
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
That scene was replayed Sept. 2, only this time, a Gulf Coast mayor was telling Bowen that he didn't want the National Guard troops to leave. Bowen kept the troops in the mayor's town.
"Once you put soldiers on the streets with M-16s, things tend to settle down," Bowen said today at his bustling state headquarters. There, he is managing Alabama's forces as they provide relief operations support not only to Alabama, but also to Louisiana and Mississippi.
"They were tickled to death to see us," Bowen said. "When the Guard comes, they bring everything."
Guard forces ordinarily enter an impacted area from one of the sides of the hurricane's path, hours after the storm passes through, Bowen said. As Katrina hit South Florida, Bowen and his staff began planning and pre-positioning personnel and equipment, using full-time Guard members to handle the bulk of the planning phase.
Less than 24 hours after Katrina had left its trail of destruction, soldiers and airmen from the Alabama National Guard were rescuing and evacuating civilians from the state's Gulf Coast. Guard officials here said 96 civilians were rescued from the Mobile area, and Alabama troops evacuated 400.
"The Alabama National Guard was prepared to provide support," Bowen said. "They did a Herculean job to get these soldiers out there."
"These people have jobs," Bowen said. "We have to get them into the armory, get them in uniform, equipped," he said. But despite the challenges, more than 1,400 soldiers and airmen from Alabama were called to state active duty to support relief efforts hours after the wind stopped howling.
Initially, the Guardsmen were mobilized to conduct search-and-rescue operations. Approximately 75 Special Forces soldiers, equipped with agile inflatable boats, helped rescue personnel, but the mission eventually shifted westward and changed once military leaders in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana surveyed the damage.
The Special Forces soldiers were then sent to New Orleans to search for victims and a 300-strong military police unit and 500 engineers were diverted to Mississippi to help distribute ice, water and food, keep order and clear roads.
"During the storm we knew they were over there taking a beating," Bowen said. After the storm, Bowen said he spoke with the adjutant general of Mississippi and the two agreed to cooperate and combine their efforts under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact.
EMAC is a national mutual-aid and partnership agreement that allows state-to-state assistance during governor- or federally declared states of emergency. EMAC provides a straightforward system for the National Guard in unaffected states to send troops and equipment to help states in need.
EMAC was used last year when 800 personnel from 38 states deployed to support operations in the aftermath of Hurricanes Ivan, Frances, Charley and Jeanne.
Two battalions were sent to Hattiesburg, Miss., and are currently being used mostly in the distribution of humanitarian aid. Currently the Alabama National Guard is involved in security, communications, distribution, search and rescue, engineering, and airlift missions.
More than 3,900 soldiers and airmen from Alabama are currently supporting disaster relief operations in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. In addition, more than 1,200 Alabama National Guard soldiers are deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq.
"It really hasn't affected us," Bowen said about the mission demands of the war on terror. And National Guard units from throughout the country are responding with personnel and equipment, not because of personnel shortages in the Guard ranks attributable to overseas deployments, but because of the complexity and magnitude of Katrina's aftermath, officials said.
According to Guard reports, at least 77 percent of Alabama's force was available to respond to the disaster. This number is well above the National Guard's nationwide objective, which stipulates governors have at least 50 percent of their force available to respond to state emergencies. Louisiana, which has forces deployed to Iraq, has at least 65 percent of its forces available to respond to disasters. Mississippi has the least, with 60 percent of its force available.
"The story of the Guard is being written now," Alabama National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Bob Horton said.
"At least 90 percent of our troops supporting state missions have served in Afghanistan and Iraq," Horton said. Employers and families are impacted by the operational tempo and the soldiers face many challenges, Horton said. But, "They're still willing to do their state mission, even though they just got back."
A signal battalion just returned from Iraq is headed to New Orleans to provide security, Bowen said.
"They're a battle-hardened group that'll do a good job there," Bowen said. "They're on the road right now."
But the Guard faces the same challenges that civilians are presented with. Fuel is scarce here, communications infrastructure is wiped out and shipping relief aid without passable supply routes causes delays.
"We find fuel wherever we can," Bowen said. "The fuel issue is the biggest one I've seen in all of these hurricanes."
However, Louisiana is addressing the challenges and applying solutions. Alabama has sent teams to manage the distribution of fuel near the Gulf Coast, a communications team has restored first responder communications in some areas, and units are now providing humanitarian aid behind the path cleared by Alabama's engineers.
Aid is physically moving on the ground and in the air. Spiritually, things are moving too; Alabama Guard chaplain teams were deployed to Louisiana and medical teams have also been dispatched.
Bowen said that state military leaders are in constant communication and work with the National Guard Bureau to coordinate operations. But Guard officials note that the National Guard remains under the command and control of state civil authority and support chief law enforcement officers.
National Guard soldiers on state active duty are designated as peace officers under state laws. While on state active duty the Guard's mission is to serve the state or territory as directed by the governor during times of crisis, disaster, civil disturbance and other threats of life and property unless federalized by the president.
The National Guard has a unique dual mission providing forces at both the state and federal levels and is the only service that abides by two oaths of office, one to the state constitution and one to the U.S. constitution.
Guardsmen are paid by state funds when mobilized by their governors unless the president federalized them, in which case the soldiers receive federal benefits and compensation.
Bowen plans to keep his initial force on duty for two weeks and then replace them with fresh soldiers so "troops can get back to their lives." He added that many on duty right now for disaster operations have also suffered losses in the storm, although he couldn't estimate how many.
The Alabama National Guard is one of the largest National Guard entities in the United States, with a force of more than 13,200 soldiers and airmen. The units currently performing disaster missions include the 231st Military Police Battalion of Prattville, 877th Engineer Battalion of Hamilton, 1st Battalion, 167th Infantry Regiment of Talladega, and the 20th Special Forces Group, 711th Signal Battalion, and CH-47 and Black Hawk aircrews from Mobile, Ala.