Real World

Hayden Collins 2010I send my best wishes to those in South Carolina who have been affected by Hurricane Matthew and its aftermath. I was in Charleston, SC, the week before last, and I will do a separate post about my presentation at the Citadel.

No-one expects a hurricane or other natural disaster. But we prepare knowing that one day, there will be one, and we will be ready to respond and to aid others when it does.  Training others in this kind of readiness has been my goal in holding a weekend field training exercise (FTX) each Fall for the past six or seven years.  We had planned for months to hold this year’s Operation Lost in the Woods on the second weekend in October, at a farm in Rockmart in northwest Georgia.

The advance party arrived Friday and set up camp, and the main task force arrived on Saturday. We had members of the U.S. Army 5th Special Forces from Fort Campell, KY; B Company SAR TEAM 1, Young Marines from Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia; northwest Georgia units from Civil Air Patrol and Bartow County EMA and CERT teams, as well as local Boy Scout support. The training included field preparation and field survival, operations communications, first aid, search and rescue, and the process for medical extraction.  During these exercises, the coordination and cooperation between these different organizations is perhaps as valuable as the disaster response training itself, with Scout masters leading the Scouts, Ground Team Leaders directing the CERT teams, and the Young Marines had their own instructors and support staff.  As the Officer in Charge, it was my responsibility to make sure they all worked together toward a common goal.

Also that weekend, Hurricane Matthew arrived in Florida and marched up the Atlantic coast.   While our teams honed their disaster response skills at the FTX, those evacuating from the low-lying areas from Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina were streaming inland, many of them headed for shelters being set up in designated schools.  In search and rescue training, there is a code for when something happens that is outside of the regular training, that it is no longer just an exercise.  That code is the phrase “real world.” On Saturday afternoon, I was notified that the unit training at the farm (B Company SAR Team 1) was likely to be activated on Sunday morning for supporting hurricane recovery efforts, to support and reinforce National Guard units already deployed in our own state.

The initial call from headquarters directed us to Hard Labor Creek State Park in Rutledge, about 50 miles east of Atlanta, where we would establish another evacuation shelter and maintain it until relieved. Due to changing conditions, that mission was canceled while we were in route.  The Red Cross was scrambling to find shelter assistance for the shelters, who would coordinate the shifts of personnel overseeing health services, distribution of the food and bedding, communication with family members, provide security, and all the paperwork.  Our group joined the mission and we were re-routed to support shelters in Augusta.  Everywhere there was a gap in their operations, we filled in as needed.  I served as an Field Officer for the mission, and worked with Red Cross and EMS in the shelters.

As the hurricane past and the danger of flooding subsided and the citizens were being returned to their home towns, we worked to close down the shelters. This next phase was called Operation Bail Out and I was assigned be the Officer in Charge.  After waving goodbye to the families and closed out all the shelters for the Red Cross, and then I dismissed all the soldiers, mine were the last boots on the ground for this mission.  Other units still remain in support of ongoing recovery activities.

The disaster recovery is still in progress in North and South Carolina and there are still shelters in operation in South Carolina, but this Georgia mission is done. I am honored to be a part of it, and I’m glad we made a difference.  It was a long weekend, to say the least: in the past 7 days, I watched 3 operations.  But a few positive things emerged from this natural disaster. For trainers, conceiving training that will support the need of the disaster can be hard to design, but this year it was done for us.   We got some good trained personnel who can handle a lot of stuff and now have a real understanding disaster recovery.   In the shelter situations we supported in Augusta, it was understood this is a disaster and we have to get through it together.  We were working with families that had to evacuate, and also with homeless persons who had to evacuate – everyone was equal in the disaster, and all were taken care of.  This created an appreciation that is unusual.  We often fall short of this awareness in our everyday lives, but in a disaster, we are able to excel.

Raising the Standard

modern-woodman-web-shotLast month I was invited by Woodmen Life to speak at their commemoration of the 15th anniversary of 9/11.  The flag presentation at the Bartow Youth Complex was one of many presentations that include the construction and cost of a flag pole and plaque.

During a formal presentation it takes more than one person to present a flag.  I asked for all veterans in the audience to come forward.   I needed help, help from my fellow veterans to present this flag properly.  This group of veterans unfurled the flag, opening it to the wind.  With a salute the flag was raised to the top of the pole and then lowered halfway.  Half mast, the condition marking a time of despair and grief with honor over lost souls.

The wind picked up the flag and the blue field faced the veterans, who were standing together with honor.  The patriotism of those attending glowed as we all took the time to present this offering from Woodmen Life.

In 2001, the tragedy brought unity, but since then time has allowed for divisive issues to surface.  Remember the large flags that were flown then, to honor those who lost their lives that day, particularly the first responders.  Perhaps that memory is no longer fresh in the public’s mind.  Our nation’s attitude has changed in recent years, the disaster of the financial markets is becoming history and the strength of the American people is shining through.   We are in an emotional recovery from watching the devastation of homes being foreclosed, people out of work and fear from attacks.

Recently some athletes have used the performance of our national anthem to make a personal statement.   Most Americans face the flag, remove their hats and place the right hand over their heart, while members of the armed forces salute the flag.  It is different for those who have served, for those  of us who have stood, ducked to cover, took fire and returned fire under conditions that most Americans will hopefully never experience.

Our country’s flag has not lost its meaning to our men and women in uniform.   The flag is part of our uniform.   When I served in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield in 1992, I could not help but notice the flag patch on my uniform was different from the patches worn at the time by public services and other groups.   Normally the blue field is on the left with the bars facing right.  However, during war the blue field is on the right.  I asked about this and the answer makes sense and stirs my blood.   The blue field is attached to the flag pole and when charging into battle the blue field leads.  This emblem on our uniforms served to remind us that each of us was charging into harm’s way.

Our country has been at war since 1992.  Commanders realize that although public opinion runs warm and cold, our mission and our commitment to complete it does not waiver.  Neither does our concern for the men and women we must lead.

As a nation, Americans stand for many things.  We stand together when needed, and we fight among each other often.  Yet our flag is neutral.  We do many things together under Old Glory, even protest, it’s still the stars and stripes.  Civilians are welcome to not stand during pledge of allegiance and national anthem, as an exercise of their freedom of speech and expression.  They’re allowed to do that under the Constitution, which those in uniform who serve have sworn to defend and serve.

The flag itself is neutral, but a majority of Americans look to it with reverence because of what it reminds us of.  As leaders we recognize that an individual’s protest does not affect our own patriotism.  Our mission is elsewhere.  Events such as the September 11 presentation by Woodmen Life remind us that respect for the flag is respect for our nation.