September 20, 2005
By Staff Sgt. A.J. Coyne
GULFPORT, Miss. — Once Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers got the call to travel to Mississippi to help residents here recover from Hurricane Katrina, it took just 50 hours to get them on the ground and begin their mission.
“To recall Soldiers, get all our equipment together, fly to a disaster area and start providing relief assistance in two days is remarkable,” said Lt. Col. John Epperly, commander of Task Force Stonewall. “A lot of units couldn’t do that but I’m proud that we did.”
Making the mission even harder was the fact that the orders came down over the Labor Day Weekend, when Soldiers were scattered about, enjoying their last few days of summer.
“I knew we had to get here fast and I knew it was a holiday weekend,” Epperly said. “So in the early hours there was a lot of uncertainty.”
One Soldier was camping in South Dakota when the call went out, according to Epperly, while others were barbecuing, swimming or just spending time with their families. But once they got the call and heard about their mission, it didn’t take troops much time to get ready.
“I had four and a half hours to leave a family picnic, get my gear and get to the armory,” said PV2 Michael Key, a Soldier assigned to C Company, 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment. “But I didn’t mind because this is my first deployment and I knew we would be helping people who really need it.”
Soldiers assembled at armories in Harrisonburg, Lexington and Lynchburg on Labor Day and traveled to Sandston the next morning to prepare for their mission. That afternoon the majority of the 224 members of the task force were in the air, on their way to Jackson, Miss., while another group of Soldiers was pulling out of Lynchburg in a convoy of more than three dozen vehicles for the 800-mile trip to Gulfport.
Because everything happened so quickly, many Soldiers didn’t have the opportunity to warn their employers about their impending mobilization. As a result, many bosses came in on Tuesday morning not knowing when their employees would return.
“We get so much support from family members and employers,” Epperly said. “We wouldn’t be able to do the things we do if not for them. Their encouragement, understanding and support have been phenomenal.”
Once they were in Mississippi, the Soldiers were able to focus on their mission. But the speed at which they reacted showed the resources and capability of the National Guard.“This just shows that when the National Guard is needed and the chips are down, we’re here,” Epperly said. “This mission proved that and I’m proud that we could do that.”