Va. Guard returns to routine operations after assisting with snow response

Virginia National Guard Soldiers from the Cedar Bluff-based 1033rd Engineer Company, 276th Engineer Battalion employ engineering equipment to remove snow in Lee County, Va. Feb. 28, 2015.  (Photo by Capt. Andrew J. Czaplicki, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Virginia National Guard Soldiers from the Cedar Bluff-based 1033rd Engineer Company, 276th Engineer Battalion employ engineering equipment to remove snow Feb. 25, 2015, in Lee County, Va. . (Photo by Capt. Andrew J. Czaplicki, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

SANDSTON, Va. — The Virginia National Guard transitioned to routine operations March 1, 2015, after mobilizing more than 125 Soldiers to assist with snow recovery operations starting Feb. 22 at locations across the commonwealth. For seven days, Soldiers assisted local law enforcement and emergency response organizations in the Southwest Virginia area with delivering food, water, medicine and other supplies, evacuating citizens for safety and medical assistance and removing snow berms limiting road access with engineer equipment. In Wise, Lee and Dickenson counties, approximately 40 Soldiers delivered more than 5,300 bottles of water, almost 1,800 meals and transported more than 25 people to safety.

“This is the kind of coordination we try to achieve with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the Virginia State Police, the Virginia National Guard, local emergency managers and local first responders all coming together to make sure we meet the needs of our citizens,” said Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran. “This is the way it is supposed to work, and it is working very well.”

Moran visited Wise County with Governor Terry McAuliffe Feb. 25, 2015, to assess damage and thank the many organizations working together to assist citizens.

“Our team is doing a magnificent job,” McAuliffe said.

Soldiers from the Cedar Bluff-based 1033rd Engineer Company, 276th Engineer Battalion began serving on duty in Wise County Feb. 22 and were joined by Soldiers from Gate City-based 1032nd Transportation Company, 1030th Transportation Battalion for operations in Lee and Dickenson counties as well.

The Virginia National Guard staged 50 Soldiers from the Staunton-based 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Feb. 25 to be on standby at readiness centers in Staunton, Sandston, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Danville. After sending out the alert in the afternoon, all the Soldiers were staged and ready by 8 p.m. They were released the following day.

Ten Soldiers from the 116th IBCT were on standby in Highland County from Feb. 22 to 24. Additional Soldiers, Airmen and members of the Virginia Defense Force were also on duty in Richmond, Sandston and Fort Pickett to provide mission command and logistical support for state-wide operations.

“The Guard has really enhanced our abilities to get to people and places we couldn’t reach with the roads being in the shape they are in,” said Maj. Grant Kilgore, chief deputy for the Wise County Sheriff’s Office. “These are great guys, and everyone has worked really well together.”

Virginia Soldiers assisted the Wise County Sheriff’s Office with multiple medical and safety evacuations, with three of those evacuations saving the patients’ lives.

According to 1033rd Engineer Company 1st Sgt. Billy Bartlett, Soldiers assisted sheriff’s deputies and local emergency medical services with two patients in immediate need of dialysis and another whose oxygen supply was running low. The Guard’s ability to transport through heavy snow helped save the patients’ lives, he said. On two occasions, Soldiers created field-expedient stretchers from blankets and tarps to transport patients to a medical evacuation point.

“We figured out the patient couldn’t stand up, so we tried to find whatever we could to keep him warm,” said Spc. Nicholas Turner, a heavy equipment operator from Wise, describing the evacuation where the patient was running low on oxygen. “It was great teamwork, and everyone stayed cool and calm.”

Turner said they then used a combination of a tarp and blanket to create a stretcher, and he estimated they carried the patient more than 150 yards through deep snow and ice.

“It is great that we get to provide service to our community,” said Pfc. Dakotah Wilson, a heavy equipment operator from Lebanon. “It warms the heart and reminds me why I joined the Guard.”

Guard Soldiers conducted the resupply and evacuation missions in direct support of the Wise County Sheriff’s Office, with missions often being led by local law enforcement and the Soldiers providing mobility with their Humvees or light medium tactical vehicles.

Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency Feb. 16 and authorized up to 300 Virginia National Guard personnel could be brought on state active duty for possible response operations, and more than 125 personnel were staged and ready at locations across the commonwealth by that evening. The Soldiers, Airmen and members of the Virginia Defense Force were ready to support the Virginia State Police, the Virginia Department of Transportation and other state and local emergency response organizations.

McAuliffe also authorized aviators from the Sandston-based 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment to deliver food, mail and medical supplies Feb. 16 to residents of Tangier Island. The 1.2 square mile island, located in the Chesapeake Bay, had been unable to receive routine seaport deliveries due to icy conditions.

“Accomack County contacted us to see if there was any way critical supplies could be delivered to Tangier Island since icy conditions were preventing boats from making their usual deliveries,” said State Coordinator Jeff Stern. “We coordinated with Maryland public safety officials and the Coast Guard, and tasked National Guard aviators to carry out the mission at the direction of the governor. This was executed within hours after we received the request thanks to this week’s emergency declaration.”

The aviation crews flew first to the Accomack County Airport, picking up emergency management personnel who could assist with moving the several hundred pounds of expected cargo. There, the helicopters fueled up before heading to Crisfield, Md., where they were first met by a U.S. Postal Service truck, packed with mail for the iced-in Tangier Island residents. Then, a truck loaded with milk, eggs, bread, potatoes and medicine was unloaded and the goods hauled to the helicopter in the blistering wind across an icy runway. From there, the crew flew to Tangier Island where they were met by half a dozen pick-up trucks and a small crowd of Tangier Island residents who assisted in unloading the cargo.

“I am really proud of how quickly and effectively our air crews responded to this request,” said Brig. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia. “They displayed the Guard motto of ‘Always Ready, Always There.’”

After the cargo was unloaded on Tangier Island, the residents took a few minutes to shake the hands of the aviators, thanking them for bringing in the much-needed supplies.

“Our entire job and our role is really focused on the community and on helping them out,” explained Chief Warrant Officer 3 Joshua Jacobsen, who helped pilot the mission and who moved to Virginia from Minnesota two years ago. “It felt good for me personally to give back to the state that I feel has really embraced and welcomed me as a Virginian.”

Tangier Island had been iced in since before Valentine’s Day when freezing temperatures swept the commonwealth, making regular deliveries of mail and supplies impossible.

“We all forget sometimes how great it is to have our military, and they keep us free, but in these situations it’s not just to protect our outer boundaries, but to help the citizens as well,” said Charles Pruitt, director of public safety for Accomack County. “It’s great to have the National Guard available to do this for us.”

Additional reporting by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs

Photos: Engineers remove snow, clear roads in Lee County – Feb. 28, 2015

Photos: Hampton Roads troops prepare for winter storm response operations – Feb. 27, 2015

Photos: Governor, SPSHS tour Wise County to assess damage, thank supporters – Feb. 25, 2015

Photos: Va. Guard Soldiers continue to deliver supplies in Wise County – Feb. 24, 2015

Photos: Va. Guard Soldiers assist Wise County deputies with medical evacuation – Feb. 23, 2015