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Bittersweet homecoming for Citizen-Soldier helping Joplin

JOPLIN, Mo. (6/20/11) - A southwest Missouri native considers it an honor to lead Task Force Phoenix in providing state oversight of the clean-up and removal process after a deadly May 22 tornado left millions of cubic yards of debris strewn throughout Joplin.

When Gov. Jay Nixon ordered the Missouri National Guard to provide state oversight for the debris removal the process, Missouri National Guardsman, Army Col. William A. Ward, was appointed commander of the task force.

Ward was born in St. John’s Hospital, which was hit hard by the tornado and is less than a mile from the armory where his task force is based.

"I’ve felt like I’ve been part of this community my whole life," said Ward, who grew up in nearby Neosho. "This, for me, is a way for me to finally give back and pay back what southwest Missouri has done for me my whole life."

Ward recounted how the Joplin community supported him and his troops as they deployed to Iraq in 2003, lining the streets of Joplin and waving flags. Many of those same streets are now covered with the debris left by the tornado.

"Most of those people didn’t know us, they were just supporting the National Guard and their country," said Ward. "I get a little emotional when I think about it, but it’s a way for me to give a little back to the community."

After graduating high school, Ward attended Missouri Southern State University and was commissioned as an officer in 1984 with the university’s ROTC. He later received his engineering degree from the University of Missouri in Columbia.

In 1987, Ward joined the Missouri National Guard and served with the 203rd Engineer Battalion in Joplin for 20 years. Though living in Oklahoma, Ward spent a lot of time in Joplin with the Guard and his father.

"Joplin was, for 20 years, my home away from home," said Ward. "My Guard unit was here and all of my friends in the Guard were from this area."

When news of the horrific tornado reached Ward immediately started making phone calls checking on people.

"The first thing that went through my mind was, ‘Are my friends and people I know in this area OK?’" said Ward. "Immediately after that, if not the same thought, was ‘I know the Guard is responding already because the units in the area will do that.’ They just automatically respond."

The next few days were uneasy for Ward as he wanted to be in Joplin to help any way he could.

"I wanted to get down here; this was my home," said Ward. "When I got the call from the adjutant general, even though this is a disaster area, I was honored and relieved to be finally going. I had to watch it for about four or five days without being involved and it was killing me."

The debris removal process will take months to complete, said Ward.

"It is a daunting task, but I think my experience in doing engineering projects, and very large scale engineering projects, allows me to look at it from a unique perspective. We’ll put a plan in place and start executing that plan," said Ward. "That plan is going to allow us to establish milestones and goals. As we reach those, we’ll either modify the plan or keep going if it’s working properly, and we’ll adjust as necessary."

While it is a daunting task, Ward is optimistic.

"Even though it’s huge, there is an end in sight," said Ward. "We know what the end-state is and that’s ensuring the debris gets cleaned up so Joplin can start rebuilding."

Ward also commands the 110th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade headquartered in Kansas City. Much of Task Force Phoenix is made up of Citizen-Soldiers from his brigade that live in the Kansas City and northwest Missouri area. With flood missions on the horizon, even more of his troops are facing yet another state emergency.

Though Ward clearly has his hands full in Joplin, and can’t be two places at once, he said he is naturally concerned with the flooding and is keeping abreast of the situation.

"I feel very comfortable with the command structure we have in place," said Ward. "We, as a brigade, are designed to be able to command on multiple fronts and have multiple things going on at the same time. Having this amount of responsibility in multiple locations is not something that would be out of the ordinary if we were overseas doing a mission. We’ve got the capability to do both, and I know the Soldiers working on the flood fight will be just as passionate as the Soldiers down here helping the tornado victims."

As Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen, Guard members have a dual role serving both stateside and abroad. Ward said that even though the operations couldn’t be more different, they are similar in many respects. The training Soldiers receive for overseas missions also prepares them for what they are facing now. In a hostile environment Soldiers have to be ready for consequence management, which is basically responding to disaster-type incidents when they occur.

"It trains you to think quickly, it trains you to perform decision making in a time-constrained and stressful environment," said Ward. "We do the same type of training when we’re overseas and have to respond to similar events. Granted they are from different sources, but the same type of response occurs no matter where you are at."

Regardless the mission, be it in Missouri or Iraq, Ward is quick to give credit to his entire team for its successes.

"This is a team effort," said Ward. "This isn’t just ‘Bill Ward’ down here. I could not do what I do without the strong team members I have around me. It goes all the way from the top to the bottom. We’re strong all the way through the organization and every person has a crucial role and we couldn’t do what we do without everybody performing their job. The motto of the 110th MEB is ‘Get it Done,’ and that’s what we intend to do."

Ward is a licensed civil engineer at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Okla., for the 72nd Air Base Wing.