INDIANAPOLIS - Soldiers and Airmen from the Indiana National Guard began returning to home stations Sunday after spending eight days fighting floodwaters in southwest Indiana.
Sixty Soldiers from Joint Task Force-81 will remain behind in the vicinity of East Mount Carmel and New Harmony, Ind., working with local responders to observe the water level at local levees.
"I think we've done really well," said Sgt. Lauren Hroblak of the 38th Infantry Division, who was participating in her first relief mission near New Harmony. "I see a lot of progress, there's a lot of good that's happened because of what we're doing. Hopefully, a lot of damage has been avoided because of this. We're keeping motivation high and of course you know it's raining so it's never fun, but we're making it fun."
More than 1,300 Soldiers and Airmen have worked with Indiana communities for the past week in their efforts to keep the water out and protect critical infrastructure and historical sites. Work included filling at least 60,000 sand bags and positioning more than 23,000, providing potable water to civilians and protecting clean water and sewage facilities.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District, also supplemented local efforts by providing additional supplies to Midwest communities, including another 5,948,000 sandbags, 45 emergency water pumps and 516 rolls (approximately 9 miles) of plastic sheeting.
Indiana National Guard Soldiers and Airmen pushed out an average of 2,500 sandbags an hour at the height of mobilization Wednesday, rotating between manual shovel-bagging and automated sandbagging machines.
Morale remained high, despite the long hours and hot work. Many Soldiers said they were humbled to know each sandbag earned a "thank you" from local residents, although they may never know what waters the sandbag stopped.
Homemade goodies, including sausage and sauerkraut, macaroni and cheese, turkey and egg noodles made from scratch and desserts, from local residents eager to show their appreciation helped keep spirits up as well.
"If they weren't working so hard, they'd all be fat from the good cooking," Brig. Gen. David Harris, JTF-81 commander, said of the round-the-clock meals his Soldiers received from local volunteers at the Hazleton, Ind., community center.
"They do great work. You couldn't find a more polite group of people in your life," said Joyce Ellis, who runs the kitchen in the community center. "They thank you for your every meal, thank you for everything that you do for them...They give hugs!"
In a chat between the troops and the ladies, one Soldier mentioned that his birthday was the next day. The ladies found the best cake maker in town, and had her make the Soldier his own birthday cake overnight.
Another night night, a lady was talking about all the pies she was going to make overnight and a Soldier casually mentioned that he hadn't had a red velvet cake in years.
The next day, sitting on the dessert table at lunch was a red velvet cake - next to apple dumplings, German chocolate cake, cherry cobbler, raspberry cobbler, blueberry cobbler, blackberry cobbler and many other choices.
"They've been very supportive here. I think, you know, the food is excellent. I get waved at everywhere I go," said Spc. Andrew Thode who spent the day placing sandbags in the rain and heat.
Most of the ladies couldn't understand how the National Guard troops could thank them just for the home-cooked meals.
"They thanked us for our food. I just can't get over that," said Jeanie Scott, who was almost brought to tears as she told the story of grateful troops.
(Editor's Note: Staff Sgt. Justin Goeden, Sgt. Kimberly Calkins and Spc. William E. Henry serve with the Indiana National Guard. Their articles were combined for this report, and press releases from the Indiana National Guard and Army Corps of Engineers also contributed to this article.)