September 15, 2005
By Staff Sgt. A.J. Coyne
GULFPORT, Miss. — Although the residents of Gulfport, Miss., have lost cars, boats and homes, they’re still finding it within themselves to give something back to the Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers sent here to help them recover from Hurricane Katrina.
Whether it’s food, drinks or just a kind word, Soldiers with Operation Stonewall Relief have been overwhelmed by the kindness of total strangers who have lost so much and whose lives have been changed forever.
“They’ve all been awesome,” said Pfc. Silvan Mason, a Soldier with A Company, 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division.
“It seems like we’re getting seven meals a day,” the Norfolk resident said. “They’re bringing us water, ice, food, everything.”
“We were expecting a mini-war zone,” admitted Spc. Brandon Reed, a Bealeton, Va., resident assigned to C Co. “We really weren’t expecting them to try to give so much to us. It’s just been awesome.”
“The hospitality of these people has been incredible,” agreed Powhatan native Sgt. Paul Kushma of A Co. “We came down here to help them but they’re going out of their way to help us.”
As the Soldiers, who are manning checkpoints around the city in order to keep non-residents away from the most heavily-damaged areas, become a regular presence to the local populace, more and more of their new neighbors are going out of their way to show their appreciation for their presence.
“At first, people thought we were here to contain them,” explained Spc. Jeremy Fortner, a Richmond resident assigned to B Co. “But once we explained that they were free to come and go and that we were just here to keep other people out of their neighborhood, I’ve seen nothing but happiness for our presence.”
“One guy told me he was glad he wouldn’t have to sleep with a shotgun anymore,” Mason said. “But most people just thank us for keeping their homes safe.”
The residents of Gulfport are glad the Soldiers are here but despite their appreciation for the Soldiers’ presence, many of them still have one wish about the Virginians’ visit to their beautiful hometown.
“They all say they wish we could have seen what it looked like before Katrina hit,” Reed said.
When Hurricane Katrina was about to hit Gulfport, Miss., Edward “Snowball” McKenna and his family packed up and left.
“If not, we’d been right here,” he said, tapping his finger on the front counter of “Snowball & Sons & Daughter & Grandchildren,” the roadside service station he has owned since 1952.
The service station is still standing, with little visible damage from the storm. In fact, it’s now become an important location in the community, a place where locals can stop in and get the bags of ice they desperately need in the Mississippi heat.
But Snowball’s home, where he’d lived for nearly 15 years, was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
“Hurricane Camille was just a baby compared to this one,” he said. “This one was devastating.”
But the retired Mississippi National Guardsman is relieved to see Soldiers from the Virginia Army National Guard take the lead in securing some of the hardest hit areas of Gulfport.
“They’re doing an outstanding job,” he said of the Soldiers from Task Force Stonewall Relief. “They can’t do enough for us.”
The military has a special place in the McKenna family. The 76 year-old Snowball retired from the National Guard in 1989, after 43 years of service to his country. Meanwhile, one of his sons is currently serving in the Mississippi Air National Guard and recently returned from a year-long tour in Iraq. Another son literally grew up in the Army, according to Snowball, accompanying his father to annual training at Camp Shelby, Miss., every summer when he was a kid.
So after giving so much to the military, he’s tickled to see that it hasn’t forgotten about his community and has rushed in to offer assistance when they’ve needed it most.
“It’s just a great feeling to have them here,” he said of the Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers. “They’re working really hard to get everything going again and we appreciate it.”
But just as the Soldiers are helping his community, Snowball’s also seen how his community has reached out to the Soldiers, offering food, water and gifts.
“They’re doing a great job and we can’t do enough for them,” Snowball explained. “That’s just the way people are here. We’re doing alright and we’re going to come back stronger and better from this.”