Servicemembers Proud to Support Katrina Response
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 6, 2005 Servicemembers supporting hurricane-relief efforts along the Gulf Coast agree that while it's heartbreaking to see the massive devastation left in Hurricane Katrina's wake, they're happy to be able to roll up their sleeves to help their fellow countrymen.
That's the across-the-board assessment of the military responders who, U.S. Northern Command officials reported today, number almost 14,000 active-duty troops and more than 38,000 National Guardsmen, a force expected to continue to grow in the days ahead.
Regardless of their missions -- conducting search-and-rescue operations, evacuating displaced residents, providing law-and-order support, or distributing food and water -- troops supporting the hurricane-relief operation agree that they're part of one of the most important missions they've ever participated in, right in their own country.
"I hate this situation, but it makes you feel good to do something positive," said Army Sgt. Will Jones of the Alabama National Guard's 1206th Quartermaster Company, which is distributing food, water, personal items and other essentials to Katrina victims in Mississippi. Like many servicemembers, Jones said it's particularly difficult to see such loss and suffering within the United States. "What makes this worse is that this is at home," he said.
"We will go anywhere we need to go," said Navy Cmdr. Joseph Paulding, an anesthesiologist from Naval Hospital Jacksonville, Fla., who is headed to New Orleans to provide critically needed medical support. "But when you go to help someone in your own country, in your own backyard, it gives you a good feeling inside that you're doing the right thing for a really good purpose."
"We want to help people in our own backyard," echoed Marine Sgt. Maj. Larry Jones, of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 461, one of three from Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., that deployed to the region to help with search-and-rescue missions and distribute humanitarian-relief supplies.
"You watch the news and the people there have no (homes or anything), so any kind of assistance we can provide will surely be appreciated by the people of New Orleans," Jones said.
Some troops supporting the operation acknowledge that the mission is far removed from their typical focus. "We're primarily a fighting force and not a humanitarian-aid force," said Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Josh Van Drei, aboard USS Harry S. Truman, which arrived along the coast this weekend to support relief operations. "But going to help people lets them see the wide range of what the military can do."
It also gives Drei and his fellow servicemembers a true sense of making a difference. "It makes me proud -- Americans helping Americans," he said.
The mission "feels a little different than Iraq," said Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 T.J. Saari, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot from the Fort Hood, Texas-based 1st Cavalry Division. "Over there, it's the job you signed up for," he said. "Here, we're just lending out a helping hand."
Like Drei, Saari said he's proud to be a part of that effort. "I'm just glad to help," he said.
Throughout the military, officials report no lack of volunteers for the mission. "People here want to help," said Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Mike Keck, from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 21, which deployed from Naval Air Station North Island, Calif. "We have had so many sailors who've wanted to volunteer to go to New Orleans that we have had to turn them away, and that makes me proud to see this squadron and the sailors volunteering to help."
"We train and train and train to respond to any situation we're needed for," said Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Tillman, a corpsman aboard USS Iwo Jima, which is serving as a launch pad for amphibious and air operations in the region.
Tillman, a Louisiana native, said he eagerly embraced the opportunity to take part in the mission. "For me and a lot of my shipmates from this part of the country, the chance to help out in any way is one I would never pass up," he said. "I want to be able to say I did everything I possibly could to help out."
"This is a great effort and I'm glad I got the chance to come out here and help," agreed Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Marlena Cox, a corpsman with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, operating at Naval Air Station Belle Chasse, La., 10 miles southeast of New Orleans. "I didn't want to stay back and do nothing when there are people in a crisis and they need help."
"When you are called upon and you roll into a situation like this, you just roll up your sleeves and jump in wherever you can," said Air Force Master Sgt. Kem Redic, a team leader for the 55th Services Squadron, based at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., now operating at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
"We're coming in here because American citizens need us to come in and help them out," said Marine Maj. Devin C. Young, staff judge advocate of the 24th MEU. "We, as the military, have the assets to do that, the president has decided to use that, so here we are. We're going to help this region out to overcome this major natural disaster."
Air Force Airman 1st Class Keith Torgerson, who deployed to New Orleans from Offutt to distribute water, food and other support to displaced New Orleans residents as they awaited evacuation from the airport, said the mission gave him a real sense of serving his country. "It makes you feel like you're accomplishing something great," he said of the work he and his fellow servicemembers are doing.
Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, had glowing words for the troops supporting relief efforts along the Gulf Coast. They're "doing a great job" as they focus on rescuing and evacuating victims and providing them food and water, Honore said during a CNN interview Sept. 5.
The chief of the National Guard Bureau, Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, also praised the response of citizen-soldiers and -airmen who make up three-quarters of the military's response effort. "I couldn't be more proud of the people in the National Guard and the absolutely awesome response they're showing to this natural disaster," he said during a Sept. 3 CNN interview on "Larry King Live."
"We had over 10,000 guardsmen on duty, who left their families, left their jobs, prepared to help others before the hurricane hit," Blum said. "The first citizen-soldiers responded to the shot heard 'round the world. Now we're responding to the storm heard 'round the world."
(Public affairs staffs throughout the services contributed to this story via their material in news articles and releases.)