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Fort Bragg soldiers dig out from Florence, begin relief operations

U.S. Army soldiers assigned to various units at Fort Bragg, N.C. prepare and load vehicles to deliver supplies and aid to the areas affected by the effects of Hurricane Florence at Fort Bragg, N.C., Sept. 15, 2018.

ANDREW MCNEIL/U.S. ARMY

By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer | Published: September 16, 2018

(Tribune News Service) — A downed tree was blocking the street of Maj. Maribel Lee’s neighborhood near Spring Lake as she tried to get to work Saturday.

Her home had lost power the night before. And her mother and child had stayed behind to wait for the storm to pass.

A neighbor told her to turn back. “It’s not safe,” he said.

But Lee, the support operations officer for the 264th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, saw no choice but to push ahead.

She and hundreds of other Fort Bragg soldiers were needed.

Starting late Friday and continuing as Tropical Storm Florence’s wind and rain continued to batter the region, local soldiers have deployed across eastern North Carolina in response to the storm.

High water rescue teams comprised of Bragg troops are stationed in Fayetteville, Raeford, Newport, Trenton and Bolivia. Others are expected to deploy to parts of North and South Carolina in the coming days, as conditions worsen.

The soldiers — no strangers to deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan — are heading out to missions in their own backyards.

“We all have our own issues,” said Lee. “But we all want to do what’s best for our community.”

Fort Bragg’s Florence response team, known as Task Force Truck, consists of soldiers from across the installation.

Led by the 264th CSSB and its higher headquarters, the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, the task force is comprised of more than 200 soldiers from the 3rd ESC, 82nd Airborne Division, 18th Field Artillery Brigade and 20th Engineer Brigade.

Lt. Col. Ricardo Jones, the battalion and task force commander, said teams are being deployed at the request of North Carolina’s dual status commander, Maj. Gen. James Ernst, who reports to active-duty and National Guard leaders.

On Sunday, the task force is expected to grow by another 360 soldiers, as units from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York, arrive at Fort Bragg.

Jones said the soldiers are focused on high water rescues, especially as water levels continue to rise in parts of the state. Each team is equipped with extra fuel, water and the ability to repair their vehicles.

“They could be out for a couple of hours or a couple of days,” he said.

Soldiers have responded quickly to relief operations, in part, because they were preparing up to a week before the storm hit, said Gen. Robert B. “Abe” Abrams.

Abrams, the commanding general of U.S. Army Forces Command, visited Task Force Truck on Saturday afternoon and praised the soldiers and the installation for its efforts.

“Bragg has been leaning in since last week,” he said. “It’s a great team effort. Everybody is all in.”

That includes soldiers stationed far outside the storm’s path.

In addition to Fort Campbell and Fort Drum, Abrams said small units of soldiers from Fort Carson, Colorado, and Fort Hood, Texas, have also come to Fort Bragg to help. And additional forces are on standby at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and other locations across the nation.

Earlier this week, officials said thousands of soldiers could respond to Fort Bragg and the surrounding area to assist in relief operations if needed.

They would bolster local first responders and the North Carolina National Guard, which as of Saturday afternoon had approximately 2,800 soldiers and airmen across the state helping to evacuate residents, rescue stranded people and place sandbags ahead of rising flood waters.

Abrams said Fort Bragg has 10 helicopters ready to assist in relief and rescue operations once the storm has passed. That number could grow upwards to 120 helicopters if needed through the combined power of the 82nd, 3rd and 10th Combat Aviation Brigades.

The latter was recently training at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, Abrams said, but it's helicopters are being diverted to Fort Bragg to assist in post-Florence operations.

“You prepare for the worst,” the general said. “But hope for the best.”

For now, the bulk of the relief work from Fort Bragg is being conducted by soldiers who have also been impacted by the storm.

Lee said it’s a humbling job, but also a sacrifice soldiers are willing to make.

“When they see their own house in shambles, they move on to help their neighbors first,” she said.

But that’s a common mentality at Fort Bragg, Lee added, where soldiers are often trained to deploy on short notice.

“You anticipate the mission,” she said. “We knew we would go out and help.”

Soldiers care, Lee added. And they want to be the ones to help their neighbors.

“It’s not a job,” she said. “It’s a way of life.”

Many of the soldiers deploying in support of Florence relief operations also deployed last year in support of hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma.

Others, like Jones, have experience with hurricanes dating back even further.

As a lieutenant, Jones, now the commander of the 264th CSSB, deployed with that unit as a platoon leader to Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina.

“What these men and women are doing now is what I did then,” he said.

Jones said soldiers have learned from Katrina and the more recent hurricanes how to respond to these disasters.

He has told soldiers to treat the relief operation like they would any other deployment.

“You have to have a mission-oriented mindset,” Jones said. “You need the same mindset going down Route Tampa in Iraq versus Interstate 95 in North Carolina.”

Jones said the response on Fort Bragg has been encouraging, with nearly every unit on post involved in relief operations in some way.

“It’s a joint effort,” he said. “We’ve all got to be ready.”

©2018 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)
Visit The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.) at www.fayobserver.com
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