Brigade makes difference in Caribbean

Story by: Pfc. Elyse Lyons
Posted: 12/1/2017
Cleaning Crew
Members of the 67th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade help clean St. Croix Ricardo Richards Elementary School while on a month-long deployment to the U.S. Virgin Islands as part of hurrican relief and recovery efforts. (Nebraska National Guard Photo by Maj. Carlos VanNurden)

The Nebraska National Guard welcomed the 67th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade back to Lincoln, Nov. 15, after the brigade spent a month providing important support in the Virgin Islands following a pair of devastating hurricanes.

The 58-person brigade headquarters acted in a command and control role over National Guard personnel and units from across the United States that had been deployed to the U.S. Virgin Islands in support of the ongoing hurricane relief and recovery operations. 

In September, the U.S. Virgin Islands, which are located to the east of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea, were hit by two Category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, which left devastation in their wake. Army and Air National Guardsmen from more than 30 states were deployed to the islands to assist local, territorial and federal officials in hurricane response efforts.

The Nebraska brigade headquarters – which consisted of 56 Nebraska Soldiers and two Airmen – deployed approximately a month after Hurricane Maria struck, replacing a similar brigade headquarters from Virginia. According to
Col. Craig Strong, 67th MEB commander, the brigade – which was initially notified that it might support hurricane operations in Texas – was ready to do whatever it could to help the islanders deal with the disaster. Still, he added, knowing that the mission was real and that people were depending on them, heightened the stress of the deployment.

“You get a lot of stress on an exercise, but this was real,” Strong said. “It was a real opportunity under real conditions to do what we do: mission command. It would have taken over three years to plan this level and value of training as an exercise. Some of these real-world experiences can’t be put into an exercise.”

While in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the members of the 67th MEB were in charge of coordinating the activities of various National Guard units and personnel with leaders from the territorial leader from the Virgin Islands, to include the Virgin Islands National Guard.

According to Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jennifer Kramer, a brigade administration and personnel support officer, communications and personnel accountability were extremely important, especially considering that Soldiers and Airmen from the supporting states were constantly moving in and out of the Virgin Islands.  

“Prior to us getting there, there wasn’t full accountability,” Kramer said. “I helped with personnel accountability and reporting up higher.”

Working out of the Virgin Islands National Guard’s joint force headquarters in Fredricksted on St. Croix, the Nebraska Guardsmen quickly began working long hours ensuring the various Guard units had what they needed, were located where required and were able to provide support to local response officials. They also quickly found out that part of the job required finding ways to solve problems.

For example, members of the brigade’s communications staff were responsible for getting data and telephone services reestablished to the six military facilities that were helping support the Virgin Islands National Guard, said Maj. Carlos Van Nurden, brigade communications officer who put off his military retirement so that he could deploy “one last time.”

That meant the brigade’s five communication Soldiers had to find ways to get satellite communications systems up and running until those sites could be supported by commercial internet again.

The Soldiers also spent long hours to help re-image 250 Virgin Islands National Guard network computers.

“We don’t get many of these very often,” Van Nurden said about the domestic response mission. “The significance of another state or territory asking us for help meant that they really needed our help.”

Because the brigade was assigned to the command and control mission, there weren’t many opportunities to provide direct support to the people affected by the hurricanes. Still, the brigade did take advantage of those opportunities when they occurred.

For example, Soldiers and Airmen had an opportunity to help clean up two schools, a cemetery, the streets of Frederiksted and part of a town market.

“We went into schools to help clean them up again,” said Chaplain (Maj.) Jon Wymer. “Cleaning off desks and putting furniture back into the rooms was an immediate impact that you can see right away. It was so important because we give something up and go away from the people that love us, so we can serve others and you can make a difference by doing that.”

Following the deployment, Nebraska National Guard leaders lauded the Soldiers and Airmen for their support, adding that their impact will be felt for many years. 

“From now on, every time you read about the Virgin Islands and the reconstruction going on, you will remember that you were a part of that,” said State Command Sgt. Maj. Marty Baker during the brigade’s welcome home ceremony. “As you go back into your civilian lives, tell your employers thanks for the opportunity. Tell your family thanks and give them a big hug.”

“You did a lot of positive things, a lot of great things,” added Brig. Gen. Kevin Lyons, former brigade commander who now serves as the Nebraska Army National Guard land component commander. “You represented not only the state of Nebraska, but the Nebraska Army National Guard and the Air National Guard in a spectacular way.”

Strong agreed, adding – as he addressed the Soldiers and Airmen one last time before they were dismissed from their mission – the Guardsmen should take a significant amount of pride away from the work they did.

“It’s easy to talk about what you did in the Virgin Islands, but I want you to think about what you became as a professional Soldier or Airman,” he said. “They say our history is a series of memories. Our life is a series of experiences. When you look back, what did this experience do for you and who you became?”