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NEWS | June 9, 2011

SPECIAL: Missouri National Guard assists tornado-devastated Joplin

Military Police help protect the citizens of Joplin

By Nancy K. Lane
Missouri National Guard

JOPLIN, Mo. - As night fell upon the tornado devastated areas of Joplin, Soldiers of the 1139th Military Police Battalion¸ Missouri National Guard take to the roads to aid law enforcement officers with traffic control and security.

On this evening, Army Sgt. Eric Wilmarth and Army Spc. Christopher Muiller were manning the check-point station at 20th and Ridgeline in Joplin. 

Behind Wilmarth and Muiller were at the remains of a strip mall that made the news when people took refuge in a store’s walk-in freezer to survive the tornado that struck Joplin on May 22.

Destroyed cars and other debris littered the parking lot making it virtually impossible to maneuver for most vehicles. 

In the twilight, an eerie calm was beginning to fall.  All that was visible in every direction was debris from destroyed homes, businesses and lives.  Electricity had not been restored to the traffic or street lights in the area. 

“This is actually better compared to the nights right after the tornado hit,” said Muiller.

Having served in Kosovo during his seven years with the Missouri National Guard, Wilmarth is no stranger to war-torn communities. 

“I am glad to be here to help out,” said Wilmarth.  “The citizens of Joplin have been through so much.  It is our job to help protect them.”

In the massive tornado’s aftermath, Soldiers with the 1139th Military Police Battalion were working 12 hour shifts.

They were manning their stations for three consecutive nights after which they would switch to roving patrols with law enforcement officers. These officers came from police and sheriff’s offices throughout Missouri.

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Sharing of information key in Guard’s response to state emergencies

By Nancy K. Lane
Missouri National Guard

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - A new collaboration between the Missouri Army and Air National Guard is paying dividends as Guard troops mobilized in response to recent natural disasters. 

During the Guard response to flooding in southeast Missouri, the 157th Air Operations Group, headquartered at Jefferson Barracks in south St. Louis County, provided real-time incident awareness and assessment via civilian and military aircraft to responding Army Guard troops and civilian authorities.

Such information could also prove valuable in the Guard response to the Joplin tornado.

“This is the first time that we’ve had Air Guard personnel at state headquarters performing this function,” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Carey.

“The Air National Guard possesses an incredible intelligence capability,” added Army 2nd Lt. Adam Kniffen, an intelligence officer at Joint Force Headquarters in Jefferson City.

“The 157th Air Operations Group is the single largest intelligence entity within the Missouri National Guard. They give us the capability to request and manage the aerial collection of information that we could not collect on our own because of staffing and equipment.”

Kniffen said sensors mounted on military or Civil Air Patrol aircraft provide photographs and streaming video which can be invaluable information for responders on the ground. For example, airborne sensors might spot a motorist or livestock stranded in flood waters or alert troops to a flooded road that was passable just hours earlier.

“The sensor capability can give military commanders or civilian first-responders a better picture of the environment they will be working in,” Kniffen said.

“The challenging part is how quickly can you get that aircraft in the air, how well can you communicate what you want to see to the pilots, and how quickly can you gather and disseminate that information in a timely fashion and get to the commanders so they know how to respond. We would not have been able to do that without the 157th.”

Aerial imagery could also prove valuable to the 139th Airlift Wing of St. Joseph, which is standing by with C-130 transport planes in the event they are needed to ship personnel or equipment to Joplin.

“We would be a user of the 157th product if tasked to respond,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Kimberly McDaniel, the wing intelligence officer.

“We might request information about airfield safety and that could come from 157th imagery analysis. It’s that kind of information that keeps our air crews safe to deliver what’s required. If we need that product, it’s nice to know it’s available.”

Air Force Capt. Dan Schepers, a 157th joint collection manager, is one of those responsible for disseminating information collected by the airborne sensors. Schepers said it is gratifying to work with the Army Guard as part of the mission.

“In years past, state emergency duty was mostly an Army Guard function and the Air Guard hasn’t really played a role,” he said.

“We’ve filled sandbags in the past but really haven’t integrated into the operations center. This was not a mission that could be accomplished from the air or ground only so I think we complimented each other very well.”

Schepers emphasizes that aerial imagery equipment is never used for surveillance on civilians.

Because of the success of the intelligence collaboration, Schepers said the close working relationship between the Air and Army National Guard will continue.

“This relationship is not going to stop after state emergency duty,” he said. “My goal is to do some exchange between Army and Air Guard intelligence on a quarterly basis.”

“This sets a precedent for future state emergencies and training,” added McDaniel. “In the future this will be a standing requirement for the 157th.”

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Guardsman helps rescue tornado victims at local Wal-Mart

By Army Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty
70th Mobile Public Affairs Det.

JOPLIN, Mo. - Some people would call him a hero, but to hear Army Spc. Jeffrey Price tell it, he was just doing his job.

Price, a heavy equipment operator for the 294th Engineer Co. Missouri Army National Guard, from Carthage, helped rescue dozens of people following the deadly storm that left hundreds dead, hundreds more injured and much of this city of about 50,000 people in ruins.

Price, 22, was on duty at his job in the automotive department at a local Wal-Mart SuperCenter Sunday as the deadly tornado that flattened area homes, destroyed businesses and gutted St. John’s Mercy Hospital, approached.

In the moments before the twister struck, Price said store employees and more than 100 customers were told to gather towards the rear of the store. As the tornado struck, Price said portions of the building – its roof, some walls and fixtures – were blown away.

“It was like a pop can crinkling, it’s the only way I can describe it,” he said. “The beams that go across the roof actually started bouncing off the concrete. The next thing I know, the roof is gone, and we’re lying there in a pile of rubble.

Seconds later, the store was completely destroyed, but for Price, his job was just beginning.

“We waited about 15 minutes or so after the twister passed before moving because it had started to rain and hail very hard,” said the Citizen-Soldier. After that, he said, he and his supervisor – a former Marine – began to look for ways to get victims out.

Price said it didn’t take long to find a small opening in the collapsed roof. Being smaller himself, he said it fell to him to make his way through and prepare to help others to safety.

Before he knew it, Price said he had helped 50 to 60 people through the opening, across the damaged roof and down a collapsed wall to safety.

“Men, women, kids … I actually had the pleasure of pulling out a three-to-four-week old infant,” Price said. “I felt the baby move – I didn’t look at it – but I felt it move, so I just handed him to another person.”

At some point during the rescue, Price said his fiancée in their hometown of Sarcoxie had sent him a text message informing him that she and his four-month-old son were okay, which he said took a load off his mind. Two hours after the tornado, he was called up for emergency duty by the 294th.

Though Price was in the right place at the right time to help victims of the city’s worst twister in generations, he is reluctant to consider himself a hero.

“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” he said. “I mean, I was just doing the best I could to get people out.”

He said a lot of people “just got out and went on their way, and I don’t blame them – it was scary.” But, he added, he and his Marine boss felt compelled to help. “We just jumped right up after it happened and started looking for a way out,” Price said.

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