Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

TOP STORY > >Guard acts on two fronts

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Even as about 2,800 members of Arkansas’ 39th Infantry Brigade train at Camp Shelby, Miss., for deployment to Iraq, other Arkansas Guardsmen responded quickly and effectively to calls for support in the wake of the deadly tornadoes that recently devastated several Arkansas communities, according to Capt. Chris Heathscott, the Arkansas National Guard’s public information officer.

The 39th includes many area soldiers. “The recent tornadoes were a true test of our ability to support the state, and we were able to do so very successfully 24 times,” Heathscott said. A Government Accountability Office study released Feb. 1 found that deployment of National Guard soldiers and equipment overseas has reduced the Guard’s ability to respond to state-led domestic missions.

That’s not what the governor’s office found in the wake of the tornadoes, however. “The Guard was great,” said Matt DeCample, spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe. “They were definitely ready.” The first request came in from Atkins (Pope County) for search and rescue, and by dawn, Guardsmen from the Fort Smith-Van Buren area were on the scene, he said.

When the governor’s office found that a burst water main in Clinton (Van Buren County) had crippled firefighting capability, he contacted the Guard, which brought a water buffalo—a huge mobile water tank—to the site.

“The governor’s keeping a close eye, especially now that the 39th is mobilizing again,” said DeCample, but barring an event of massive proportions, such as a New Madrid Fault earthquake, the Arkansas Guard is ready.

The tornado calls included search and rescue, debris removal, generator support, fresh water, aviation support for damage assessment, and they delivered tarps, tents and food, Heathscott said.

The Guard also had as many as 50 soldiers in security missions to prevent looting.
“We answered every call and did so successfully,” he added.

KATRINA RESPONSE

Heathscott added that statewide, the Guard deployed about 3,000 Guardsmen, including some just returned from Iraq, with moving equipment, generators, water tankers and Black Hawk helicopters when Hurricane Katrina struck.

He noted that the 39th would leave most of its large equipment at home this time for the current deployment, using trucks and other equipment already in place in Iraq. Heathscott disputed accounts that large numbers of Guardsmen with post-traumatic stress syndrome from previous deployments interfered with the 39th’s ability to muster enough troops.

200 SOLDIERS SHORT

The 39th Infantry Brigade, based at Camp Robinson, is about 200 soldiers short of the 3,000 intended for deployment to Iraq, but “that’s not a show stopper,” according to Heathscott.
The Arkansas National Guard has about 10,500 members, 8,500 of them soldiers, the balance airmen.

By the time the Guard subtracts those who have been home from previous mobilizations less than 24 months, those who have not yet had sufficient training, those whose rank is too high and perhaps 1,000 who have been determined “not ready from issues ranging from easily corrected dental problems to much more complex issues,” you wind up with 2,800 ready for deployment, says Adj. Gen. William D. Wofford.

GUARD SUICIDES

A recent study found that although National Guardsmen and Reservists account for only about 25 percent of the troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, their soldiers accounted for more than 50 percent of suicides.

The Arkansas National Guard had four suicides in 2006, Heathscott said, one in 2007 and one so far this year. Officials have speculated that returning Army soldiers remain in their units where unusual behavior can be easily noted and where there are resources to deal with problems, while returning Guardsmen go back to their jobs and families, where the access to mental-health help may be more difficult.

Wofford has mandated that all returning Arkansas Guard soldiers must go through a Veterans Administration LifeGuard program that helps identify soldiers with problems and get them help, Heathscott said. Also in Arkansas, soldiers and their spouses can go through the Strong Bonds program available through the Chaplain Service at Camp Robinson. Strong Bonds workshops are set up all over the state.

The brigade returned from its first mission to Iraq in February 2005 following an average deployment of 17 months. The brigade has been training full time since October, according to Maj. Craig Heathscott, public affairs officer for the 39th. At Camp Shelby, they will train in group activities and objectives.