NASHVILLE, Tenn. - As hurricanes ravaged through the southern United States and Caribbean territories this year, the Tennessee National Guard was there. More than 475 Tennessee National Guard Soldiers and Airmen from across the state supported recovery operations in Florida in September. At the same time, nearly 230 more were supporting the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Tennessee National Guard began supporting hurricane recovery operations on Aug. 29, after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas. The 118th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group, based in Nashville, Tennessee, provided 12 Airmen to conduct damage assessment, as well as infrastructure and route analysis in the state before moving on to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Irma.
"After Irma hit Puerto Rico, we collected images from open source information and from Civil Air Patrol and other pilots flying over the damaged areas," said Capt. Charles, 118th ISRG Intel Officer (full name withheld). "We were able to identify and prioritize critical need areas and where people may be stranded and in need of rescue."
"We were also able to provide a before and after damage assessment of the airfield there," said Senior Airman Matt (full name withheld), a geospatial analyst with the Nashville Wing.
After Hurricane Irma struck, the Tennessee Air National Guard's 119th Command and Control Squadron out of Knoxville, and 241st Engineering Installation Squadron out of Chattanooga, manned a Joint Incident Site Communication Capability team in Florida providing critical communications support. More than 470 Tennessee Army National Guard Soldiers, in addition to Army National Guard equipment, were placed on standby in Smyrna, for this operation, but were ultimately not needed at that time.
"After Irma made landfall, damage assessments were made and it was determined that Tennessee, as well as other state's Soldiers and resources were not needed to respond," said Col. Jeffrey Brown, director for Military Support to Domestic Operations. "We will always be ready to support any state or territory in times of natural disaster."
"Through mutual aid agreements, several states stood ready to help with relief for Harvey, Irma and Maria," he added.
Meanwhile, the 164th Airlift Wing, out of Memphis, Tennessee, sent 16 Airmen as part of an Aerial Port Team to St. Croix to assist with response efforts at the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport there. The aerial port team was responsible for processing personnel and cargo at the airport.
The Tennessee Army National Guard's 1/230th Assault Helicopter Battalion, headquartered in Nashville, initially provided two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and 34 Soldiers as support crew to provide inter-island transportation during the response in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Both teams were in the area when Hurricane Maria hit.
After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, 28 more Airmen were deployed with generators to continue support in the region. The Tennessee Air National Guard's 118th Wing out of Nashville sent three Airmen as a weather team to keep the Cyril E. King Airport in St. Thomas open, as well as 16 Airman as a Power Production Team to Munez Air National Guard Base in Puerto Rico to help restore power.
The Wing also sent a chaplain to St. Croix to provide religious support within the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"The religious support team mission was to provide unit engagement through advice to leaders, workplace engagement, spiritual counseling, traumatic event managements and worship opportunities," said Chaplain (Maj.) Mark Smith. The team provided support to the more than 1,400 personnel from 30 states and territories, across all branches of the military in the area.
In addition to spiritual counseling and traumatic management briefings, the team also assisted with three Red Cross notifications and conducted two funerals.
"It was a rare and humbling opportunity to work in a true joint task force with representations from all branches of military service," said Smith. "I knew my background in fire and emergency medical services as well as training in critical incident stress management were valuable skills in the wake of such a large-scale disaster. I wanted to serve, so I volunteered."
Smith's notification to serve came shortly after completing his required annual training with his unit.
"I got a call asking if I could deploy within 36 hours," he recalled. "I went home, told my family goodbye, threw my gear in a bag and hit the road again. That's what we do as Guardsmen."
As he prepared, the Tennessee Army National Guard was also preparing. They sent four additional Black Hawk helicopters with 31 additional aircrew members to provide command and control for rotary wing operations in the U.S. Virgin Islands. More than 145 Soldiers from the Army National Guard's 117th Military Police Battalion out of Athens, Tenn., and 252nd Military Police Company from Cleveland, Tennessee, were deployed to man traffic control points, provide security and to protect high valued assets.
"Tennessee was significant in its support to the U.S. Virgin Islands with military police and aviation support that allowed the island to maintain law enforcement, and provide the aviation capability to assist the territorial government in providing stability and relief operations," said Brown.
During this time, the Tennessee Air National Guard flew more than 90 hurricane related airlift and air refueling missions to support recovery.
"I am extremely proud of the Tennessee National Guard's response to the hurricanes this year," said Brig. Gen. Don Johnson, Assistant Adjutant General-Air, Tennessee National Guard Joint Force Headquarters.
He went on to list accolades of the Tennessee National Guard. "We had a C-17 aircraft from Memphis on the ground in Houston, Texas, literally landing on water-covered runways. The KC-135 aircraft from Knoxville have flown missions transporting Soldiers and Airmen in and out of Puerto Rico."
Johnson also noted the 118th Wing's geospatial analysts who provided critical mapping information that helped ultimately save lives, as well as the aerial port members on the ground during the passing of Hurricane Maria.
"We have had a chaplain, force support personnel, aircraft maintenance, fuels specialist and many more engaged and deployed," he said. "We understand what it means to put on the uniform and serve the citizens of this state and nation, and proudly carry the banner of Tennessee Volunteers!"
"One of the things that will stick with me is the heart of the people," said Smith. "The Virgin Islands is a place of deep faith, deep hospitality and deep resiliency. Often, when I ventured out in public, the islanders thanked anyone they saw in uniform for coming to help their island."
While two of the Tennessee Army National Guard's helicopters returned on Veterans Day weekend, there are still Tennessee Airmen on the ground in Puerto Rico. Additionally, the 134th Air Refueling Wing, based in Knoxville, still has six Airmen in Savannah, Georgia, working at the Aerial Port of Debarkation to provide transportation and fuel support.
Not only was the Tennessee National Guard ready to jump into action when the first hurricane hit, the Soldiers and Airmen continue to provide recovery and relief to the badly damaged areas. The remaining two helicopters are scheduled to return home later this week.