Guard leaves regular life behind to help others

Guard leaves regular life behind to help others
Belle Chasse, LA � After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast area, the South Dakota National Guard queried its units to see who could go to help. Those units called in 600 names, 213 of which were ultimately taken.

Those troops, 54 percent of whom were recently deployed in Iraq or Afghani-stan, have been in Louisiana since the beginning of October helping to clean up schools and neighborhoods, removing rotted food from grocery stores and giving free medical care to the people gradually returning to salvage whatever they have left.

Lt. Col. Marshall Michels is the leader of Task Force Coyote, the name given to South Dakota's troops working on the clean-up mission. They are working with guard members from other states to rehabilitate the storm-ravaged area.

As of Oct. 18, Task Force Coyote helped support Hurricane Katrina Relief with more than 5,000 man hours.

"This is the easiest mission I've been on in my life," Michels said. "You give them the mission and they go off and get it done."

Gradually the area is starting to recover, Michels said. The first business to open again was Hooters. The South Dakota Guard kept filling up with gas on the way down to Louisiana but found it was available when they arrived.

Traffic increases daily but there are still few aircraft flying, Michels said. Government workers are housed on cruise ships harbored next to downtown New Orleans. Neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward � near where one of the levees gave way twice � are still in shambles.

Garbage is piled as high as house roofs. Some neighborhoods look like a landfill with debris covering where homes once stood.

Guard member Ryan Baker of Beresford provides supplies for the guard missions in the New Orleans area. She makes trips to Home Depot to get rakes or whatever the soldiers need. Sometimes they just have to do without.

"We've been pretty busy," she said.

She works in Sioux Falls at an assisted living center, but also is a licensed practical nurse. She needs to study for her nursing boards but hasn't had the chance. It's been stressful, she said.

During one trip for supplies she started talking to a woman from the area who was also a nurse. The woman told Baker the school where she'd taken her nursing classes had been destroyed.

"I didn't know what to say to her," Baker said. "I can't imagine what they're going through."

Charles Pollock of Huron was recently stationed in Iraq, but didn't hesitate when volunteers were needed for Louisiana.

"These people have got problems," he said. "I'm not doing anything that important that I couldn't come down here for a month."

He's met a lot of people during his tour of duty in the south, most were appreciative of the work the Guard members were doing. Some made fun of their MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), he said.

Pollock has worked cleaning up a church and salvaging computer equipment from schools that he hopes can get started soon. The guard helped clean up schools in the Plaquemines Parish School District. Students were consolidated at Belle Chasse. The school started again Oct. 17.

Jim Selchert from Alcester is the executive officer for Task Force Coyote.

Some homes, he said, don't exist anymore. They're just a pile of rubble. In some places the home's structure might have held up but everything inside is destroyed.

The troops have cleaned out grocery stores where everything got wet, then got hot and rotted, he said. Forty- to 50-foot waves hit some areas.

"You can't explain what it's like," he said. "You just have to see it."

Selchert came to Louisiana because it was a chance to help out. He left his wife and family at home to run his horse training business.

"Every time we leave the family they've got to pick up whatever we do," he said.

Cell phone coverage in Louisiana has been good though, he said, so families can keep in touch.

Greg Stoltenburg is the Deuel County State's Attorney but he works as a JAG officer at Belle Chaise making sure everything stays legal, he said. The Guard isn't allowed per federal law to compete with private businesses. He advises the commander if a mission is one they can specifically do.

When he's gone on a Guard mission, one of his law partners takes over his state's attorney duties. The other partners take over the rest of the work. E-mail allows him to keep in touch with his practice and state's attorney duties and put out any fires that might come up, he said.

Stoltenburg has five children � one 12-year-old, three five-year-olds and a three-year-old. The cell phone makes it possible for him to call home at night to see how his children are doing. He and his wife talked about the mission to Louisiana before he decided to go.

"I joined the National Guard to help people," he said. "If we were in that situation hopefully they would come to help us."

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