Flood Duty with the Army National Guard

My heart goes out to those soldiers who are serving to help civilian communities. I was thinking back to a time in the mid-1990’s when I was called to flood duty.

Fortunately, I was done with classes, but my research plots were being planted and prepared for the year. I was a Doctoral graduate student in Crop Sciences working on diseases of corn. My help was badly needed, but the crew I worked with in my lab knew really well how to get the job done. So I am very grateful they could do the work in my place. However, I had a lab mate who didn’t see it that way.

Do you ever know someone who has traveled a bit and thinks what they’ve seen is monolithic in thought and presence for an entire community? As a young lady, she visited New Mexico for an extended stay. She experienced some aspects of Native American life. The problem is that she came to think she knew everything about Native America from that one trip. So she would infer things on me as a Native American about how I should think and do. There are around 567 Federally recognized tribes with their own traditions, languages, and history. You can’t make a blanket statement about two tribes that border one another, yet across the entire country. The problem is, her short-sighted viewpoints are reflected in many people’s eyes. I see it all the time.

This same lab mate also had a boyfriend who was in the Navy. She visited him a time or two and interacted with his ship and shipmates. She talked about the crazy things they did and "how sailors are". But she couldn’t leave it at that. She now extrapolated the experiences of a couple sailors to all of the military. So when I went away for weekend training or my two weeks in the Summer with the Army National Guard, she just thought I was one of her sailors. She didn’t have a clue about the legitimate work I was doing. As an Infantry Scout Platoon Sergeant, we often spent the entire weekend without much sleep doing maneuvers through the night. After a training weekend, I would walk out into the corn fields totally exhausted. Yet she would ridicule me for my goofying around all weekend. She didn’t have any idea of what I was doing.

I would say, before you make judgments about anyone, walk a few days in their shoes. Learn and understand what they really do in life. It might surprise you how hard and important their work is.

After a Spring of massive snow melt and heavy rain, I got a call from my guard unit. We were to report in 24 hours for flood duty. The rain was causing levees on the Illinois River to be saturated and in fear of collapsing. I always had a Go-Bag ready if something went down. So I grabbed it and went. We started loading up 2.5 ton trucks (Deuce & Half) with gear and people and convoyed to the staging area. Since school was out, we unloaded cots into a high school gymnasium. We got situated and received briefings about our conduct. Since I was the highest ranking enlisted man in my unit, I ended up acting as the Company First Sergeant. I also didn’t have any Officers, so I was a one-man show on the leadership side of things. Out on the levees, I was just one of the guys. But when it came to moving personnel, discipline, inspections, organizing food, and all the other things that needed to be done, I was the Man.

Every morning at 5am, I’d wake up my unit and we’d get ready to move. Since we didn’t have a chow hall or cook staff, we got loads of food from the local Hardee’s and other fast food places. That’s not all bad because I love their biscuits and gravy. Then we’d load up the trucks and take a half hour trip to a location on the levees. A dump truck would drop a whole pile of sand bags and we’d start putting them into place. For the unaware, a heavy sandbag gets really heavy in a very short time. You start to feel it in your back, shoulders, and legs. But the worst of it all is your forearms. Since you grip every single bag, your forearms swell to Popeye the Sailorman’s proportions. You’d have to open and close your hands several times in the morning or after a break to get them working again. Then you get to a point where pain turns to numbness and then back to pain and sometimes they stop functioning. You’d have to cradle sandbags in your arms because you couldn’t grip them anymore. Add to that, you are in muddy, humid, hot sun with mosquitoes and gnats in your face. In an even bigger flood, some of my guys talked about dead cattle and pigs floating by and water moccasins. When we worked at times at a sand bag filling location, we often worked alongside convicts from a local prison who were recruited to the same duty.

While on duty, each site had to have an evacuation plan and a rally point. We needed to have a good head count of our people at all times. At any time, a bubbling levee could give way and we had to know where our people were and if they were safe. If a levee actually blows out, it may not end well for anyone in the path of the water.

But even more than the physical toll was the mental toll. After a week, you become zombies. Knowing home is not far away, you start to think about your options in life. You wonder about decisions you’ve made. My guys start to get into trouble for sneaking alcohol or partying at night and not functioning in the morning. And of course, I was the guy who was supposed to stamp out trouble. Many of the farmers were extremely thankful for our help because their farms and homesteads were in peril. They would bring baked goods out to us or sandwiches and drinks. We were grateful for those treats when we could get them. However, one County Commissioner didn’t make me very happy. He was close to us talking with one of his officials. He said "we need to get more peons working on this site!" Really, peons?!! I was a Ph.D. student. We had lawyers and doctors who were among our group; and many intelligent and hard working people throughout our ranks. When I was on Active Duty with the Army, this wasn’t true. Almost all of the enlisted troops were right out of high school like me. Only the Officers had gone to college. Whereas, I’d say 60% in the National Guard are college graduates or currently in college. The rest of us were electricians, salesmen, carpenters, politicians, or serving society in some significant way. So his lack of appreciation threw me for a loop. I just kept thinking and reminding my troops of the good we were doing for that community.

After several weeks on the levees, we all returned home safely. We were happy to do our part for our State and communities. We were ready to heal our aching backs and forearms and get back to normal life. My wife and dogs were so happy to see me and I was happy to be home. I was ready to get back to my research and tending to my field plots. But that one lab mate who knows it all gave me her same old gruff. I was just goofing off according to her. I really wish should could have spent one single day doing what I did. She would know of the intense physical and mental hardship we faced every day. The same is true with troops and sailors all around the world. You can’t even fathom what they are facing every single moment of the day and night.

Appreciate first. Be thankful. Never judge.

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