Keystone kindness clobbers Katrina catastrophe


Story by 2nd Lt. Jay Ostrich


HAMMOND, La. (September 27, 2005) – Heat, bugs and misery saturated the air as an early-model, battered pickup truck snaked its way through a nearly endless line of desperation.  In the background, an oppressive sun began to set on another day of wanting in the Louisiana Bayou.


Inside a crowded cab, already cluttered with muddy clothing, a middle-aged mother, her 8-month-old daughter and elderly grandmother sit and wait a little longer for the necessities of life – food, water, shelter.  


As the rag-tag family pulls up under flood lighting, they come upon a small host of dusty, tired, but friendly-faced young men, who have sweated through their thin brown T-shirts hours ago.  The mother strains to crack a sincere, if not tired smile.


“Thank you boys for everything you are doing,” said a tangle-haired woman named Mary, who hadn’t had ice, steady food or much sleep for eight days.   “Where the heck are y’all from anyway?”


“Pennsylvania Ma’am,” a resounding chorus trumpeted as they hurriedly hauled cases of meals ready-to-eat, water and a blue tarp to help cover the holes in the family’s tattered roof.


“Well, that’s a long way to come to help us,” said Mary.  “We’re really grateful for your help – you boys are going to heaven I tell you.”


Many faces, many places


But whether it was here in Cavanaugh Park, La., a poor, rural region near the Mississippi border or in the affluent suburbs of New Orleans like Covington, this scene was not unique. Hurricane Katrina acted as a great equalizer, leaving all citizens of this region with at least some loss and many without the necessities of life. With so much uncertainty and panic following one of America’s most devastating natural disasters, one thing remained consistent for this weary society:  The more than 2,500 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard were there to drive this community back onto the road of normalcy.


The crux of the monthlong mission, named Operation Independence Relief, was headed by the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, headquartered in Northeast Philadelphia and commanded by Col. Joel Wierenga.  Subordinate unit headquarters came from every corner of the commonwealth, including: Headquarters and Headquarters Company 1-111th Infantry, Plymouth Meeting; Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2-112th Infantry, Lewistown; Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1-112th Infantry, Erie;
Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1-108th Field Artillery, Carlisle; Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 328th Brigade Support Battalion, Lancaster; Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 2-104th Cavalry, Reading; Company D, 112th Infantry (Anti-Tank), Bellefonte; 856th Engineer Company, Punxsutawney; 656th Signal Company, Torrance; 556th Military Intelligence Company, Philadelphia; members of the 213th Area Support Group, Allentown; and, members of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard from the 193rd Special Operations Wing, Middletown; the 111th Fighter Wing, Philadelphia; and, the 171st Air Refueling Wing, Coraopolis.


Ultimately, Pennsylvania was integral in heading up five crucial missions throughout the region, including its main task of manning points of distribution (PODS) where food, water and ice were supplied to over 1.2 million needy customers.  Soldiers and Airmen also supplied security, escorts for food and supply trucks, cleared fallen trees and debris from neighborhoods, conducted security missions with the local law enforcement and operated receiving and distribution sites.


Of mice, men and gumbo


Regardless of where the troops operated PODS or in what capacity they helped bring relief, the community gave its thanks in many forms.  Makeshift yard signs in every hue thanking these newly recognized heroes, and cars with honking horns and waving, grateful citizens dotted every community.  Romi and Matthew Hamey of Covington, went a step further, by organizing dozens from their community who cooked vats of piping-hot chicken and turkey gumbo, baked goods and lemonade for Company-C, 1-111th, Kutztown.


“We felt really bad for these guys who are suffering through all this heat,” said Romi Hamey, who set up a picnic-style table of goodies for the troops.  “We know they had food, but this is the least we could do to show southern hospitality and say thank you for all the hard work they are doing for us.”


“These folks have been terrific,” said Lt. Franklin G. Harvey, Company C commander.  “So many people have gone out of their way to show thanks for our efforts.”


North of Covington, in the now infamous and once volatile Washington Parrish, the urban center of Bogalusa, La., bares the scars of 100 mph winds that left a litter of newly torn lumber strewn throughout every aspect of society.  There, members of the 856th Engineer Company, Punxsutawney, sharpened their soldiering skills along with chainsaw blades outside an elementary school they used as temporary housing.


“We have been cutting down quite a few trees and there are a lot more to go,” said Capt. Curtis R. Drake, company commander.  “These guys are really working their tails off, and I couldn’t be more proud.”


One-half mile below the school, Bogalusa police Sgt. Raymond Tate, a lifelong member of the community and commissioner of Little League baseball there, shook his head and grinned as members of the company removed a 15-foot wide section of tree roots, which had fallen onto portions of a main field used for baseball, softball and football practices.


“The kids have been stopping me every day and asking when we’re playing football again,” said Tate.  “With school being out, this really helps bring back a sense of normalcy.”


Tate looked over at the outfield, chain-linked wall, which had recently been crushed by another tree limb being removed by members of the 856th.


“I am eternally grateful,” said an emotional Tate, who oversees the operations providing recreation to over 90 urban children.  “Words really cannot explain what they are doing for these kids.  I am not just speaking for me, but the whole town of Bogalusa when I say we honestly don’t want to see these Soldiers go.”


Bogalusa bad boy bagged


Just a few more miles down the road from the ball field, the Bogalusa YMCA provided makeshift headquarters to Company B, 1-111th, Philadelphia.  This company, too, will be missed by the community, but not entirely for the same reasons. 


Just days after looters ran wild, these troops provided key security and brought the town back to the road of law and order.  But while on a routine patrol with Bogalusa police, the stakes were raised when narcotics agents received tips a fugitive was in the neighborhood.


Staff Sgt. James W. Mergott led his team of Sgt. Robert Bray, Sgt. Jason Dufresne, Sgt. Thomas Worrell, Spc. Philip Conzantino, Spc. Richard Goerlach, Spc. Randall Watson, and Pfc. Brandon Reedy on a the hunt for an escaped convict, who had been serving a life sentence for armed robbery in Mississippi and was considered armed and dangerous.


“We confirmed it was him through five different sources,” said Mergott, who used a mug shot to show to neighbors, who said he was in a nearby, parked vehicle. “We decided to go get him.”


Using tactics studied to fight urban combat in places like Iraq, these men quickly formed an assault team accompanied by out and inner cordons.


“We have been training on this a lot lately,” said Mergott, who gave all the credit to the professionalism of his fellow Soldiers. “Our guys did what they were supposed to do.”


The assault team successfully snuck up behind the fugitive and captured him without one shot fired or hassle from the suspect.


“It was great,” said Worrell, with an ear-to-ear grin.  “He was really surprised we got him.


The group credited the additional training they received in result of their transformation to Stryker Brigade.


Gone, but never forgotten


On the balance sheets of goods and services, the Pennsylvania National Guard helped ensure the delivery of 11 million bottles of water, 19 million one-pound bags of ice, 7.6 million meals and 220,000 tarps to citizens trying to recover from Katrina.  But on the balance sheet of life, their contributions will never be accurately accounted for nor soon forgotten.


“We aren’t ever going to forget these guys,” said Tate.  “Never.”