Army and Air work jointly to help put South Florida back together

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Carlynne DeVine
  • 125th Fighter Wing
With beautiful sparkling waters in shades of green and blue, one would never know a massive hurricane just came through. The lay of the land, however, proved just that. 

Destruction and chaos now make up much of South Florida, worsening the further south you go. Boats in shambles, big hearty trees uprooted, RVs tipped over, semis swimming, appliances and house-hold items lie strewn along the roadways for miles on end - these peoples’ lives are changed forever.

When everyone fled north to escape Hurricane Irma, the 202nd RED HORSE of Camp Blanding, Florida, pushed south to meet the storm head on. The RED HORSE is an Air National Guard unit that specializes in mobilizing and deploying heavy equipment and operators, for both horizontal and vertical construction. Route clearing and structural building are two key missions these Airmen get called out for.

After hunkering down in Sebring to ride out Irma, they then dispersed into five teams to better cover a large portion of the state, and do what they do best - build.

Part of what the 202nd does is help rate structures, a skill highly critical for bridges, as each joint needs to be inspected for stress fractures and shifting.

“We cleared 32 bridges in four hours, from Marathon to Key West,” said Air Force Airman 1st Class Brandon Fountain, a RED HORSE HVAC journeyman. “We’d drive real slow, then real fast, stopping to check every joint along the way. We even cut a tree down on the way, just to get through an area in Okeechobee.”

Soldiers waited diligently for the Airmen to clear this route, as they were right on their heels with all of their equipment, ready to help clear roadways.

“It has been a tremendous experience for Army and Air, getting integrated and quickly delivering, from the moment we touched down on Highway 1,” said Army Capt. Corey Gathers, 753rd Brigade Engineer Battalion, Alpha Company engineer commander. “We knew this mission would be complex, and the key is to be fluid and flexible. There are no comms, no electricity, no running water and no waste water.”

Some work started at the Florida Keys Marathon Airport, such as stabilizing the perimeter.

“We also helped flip over a Cessna,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. David Bell, a RED HORSE structural journeyman.

Another joint venture took place at Camp Jackson Sawyer at the Edward B. Knight Scout Reservation, mile marker 34.

Soldiers used a High Mobility Engineer Excavator, or HMEE, to push debris aside, and the RED HORSE brought out a light cart and set it up so that everyone could work into the night.

Army 2nd Lt. Javan Brown, platoon leader for the equipment section of Alpha Company, 753rd Brigade Engineer Batallion, expressed what an honor it his for he and his troops to serve.

“As it pertains to the humanitarian effort, I am absolutely excited, my Soldiers are excited, we’re glad to be here,” said Brown. “It is unfortunate the type of circumstance we’re here, but at the same time, this is why we all signed up - moments like this, to make sure we are here. It’s a daunting task, and we’re definitely up to it.”

Several American flags, weathered from the storm, were found in the brush during the course of clearing. Later that night, long after the sun went down, Brown used this as a teaching moment for one of his troops. He pulled Army Private First Class Raymond Morales, who works in the horizontal construction field, aside, and together they respectfully folded each flag and set them aside to be given to the American Legion just down the road.

Route clearing and restoration is essential to provide safe access for emergency responders. One RED HORSE team took on this mission for a section of residential roadway in the Sebring area. 

“My guys are eager to work, doesn’t matter what time of day,” said Air Force Capt. Michael Rivera, Civil Engineer officer and deputy airfield officer in charge. “We have the right equipment and the right operators, they love to get their hands dirty.”

Homeowners waiting to regain access to their driveway were thrilled to see the team pull up and start working.

“This is one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen,” said Sebring resident Carla Ball. “We really appreciate you guys helping.”

Rivera said this kind of appreciation goes a long way, especially to Airmen like Fountain.

“I’ve already missed three weeks of college, was (deployed) in Latvia 32 days, came home and did two days of make-up drill, then got activated for this,” said Fountain. “But I’m full RED HORSE. I love to work. I love the job opportunities and the locations I get to see, especially in my now-home state of Florida.” 

Rivera expresses similar thoughts.

“Little moments like that make you glad to put on the uniform,” Rivera said.