PANAMA CITY, Fla. - From World War II to state activations, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, headquartered in Orlando, Florida, has served the citizens of Florida for the past 76 years. While the fundamental combat mission for the battalion is to engage an enemy in close combat, the Soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment do more than just that.
Currently Soldiers of that battalion continue that legacy of service during Hurricane Michael relief efforts.
"The first elements of 2nd Battalion arrived within hours of the storm," said Maj. Ryan Hagemeir, the operations officer in charge for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment.
As Hurricane Michael quickly transformed from a Category 1 storm to a Category 4, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment was preparing for its mobilization to the Florida Panhandle.
"Our operations sergeant major and our operations officer in charge went out Wednesday, the night of the storm, to Tallahassee," said Sgt. 1st Class Steven H. Robinson, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment. "They rode out the storm and once it was safe to travel they headed up here and established contact with the [Bay County Emergency Operations Center]."
An emergency operations center is the central hub for all requests for resources in response to a disaster. For Hurricane Michael's relief efforts in the Panhandle, the Bay County Emergency Operations Center is the entity.
In response to an emergency, city officials request resources via WebEOC, an online system designed to support the mission of crisis management, public safety and emergency response personnel. Through this system, missions are assigned to the appropriate organization for the task.
"We receive missions from the emergency operations center," said Robinson. "As we receive them we start tasking them out to all of our units."
"The first day or so was trying to figure out how bad the damage was," said Robinson. "Going around accessing everything and us trying to figure out the best place to get communication with everybody in our area of operations."
Hurricane Michael came ashore in the Florida Panhandle 2 mph shy of a Category 5 storm, surpassing Hurricane Katrina, Donna and Andrew in power, making landfall in Mexico Beach, Florida. Mexico Beach was quickly recognized as the location with critical significance due to the damage.
"We've been out here since Oct. 10," said Robinson. "[We've] been doing POD sites, security missions, route clearing, tree cutting and whatever needed to be done.
"Initially we were airlifted in after the storm," said Cpt. Elliot L. Brunner, commander of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment.
With storm surge up to 14 feet, downed trees, splintered homes and debris made the roads impassable.
"When we rolled up to this site, it was basically two tables with a handful of volunteers," said Brunner.
"When we arrived to this location this wasn't actually a POD," said Morris.
What began as a preplanned staging area with few volunteers standing behind a table on the side of a dirt road off of County Road 386 S, has evolved into a fully functioning, efficient and organized point of distribution and base camp for the citizens of Port Saint Joe and Mexico Beach. Soldiers from Company D, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment were there for the evolution of this now-critical distribution site.
"This [POD] was established by volunteers. This was completely organic to this area - just people wanting to help other people," said Morris. "We came in and assisted. We were able to utilize our resources to assist the volunteers."
The POD sits on a stretch of land easily accessible to the residents of Bay and Gulf County, which is owned by Bubba and Barbra Harmon, who have allowed the City of Mexico Beach to lease a portion of his land to use as needed.
"He [Bubba Harmon] has been extremely accommodating to us, allowing us to use his front gate for civilian traffic," said Morris. "We were able to establish distribution points for different items, so you come in and you have ice, followed by cases of water, followed by cases of MREs, then paper goods, hygiene products, canned foods, animal foods and now we have tools, hardware, tarps and cots."
Operating the POD isn't the only mission for the Soldiers of Company D. They are also assigned to provide security for Mexico Beach.
"We are third platoon and we were originally doing night patrols in the area," said 2nd Lt. Christopher J. Long, Company D, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment. "But, a lot of what we were doing, in the beginning, was going through the area seeing what was here and letting people know we were here."
The National Guard's state mission is to provide the protection of life, property and preserve peace, order and public safety. The Soldiers of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment take that charge to heart.
"Our unit's part was not only facilitating local agencies but facilitating the people. It is almost like a liaison," said Spc. Victor R. Reyes-Soler, a rifleman assigned to Company D, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment. "We basically helped the residents, so they can clean up and at the same time feel like their stuff was secure when they were not home.
"I know a lot of time being an infantryman everyone always see the security, they see us on roving patrols, said Morris. "I just want to make sure they understand that my guys were here to assist people and not to scare people or intimidate people. We are here to work alongside citizens and to give people the resources they need in their time of need."