Hundreds of Arkansas National Guard members have arrived in the Brazos Valley for a pit stop before heading to areas left battered by the effects of Hurricane Harvey.
Texas officials requested 1,500 National Guard members from Arkansas last week, and at least 400 are at the Brazos County Expo while they await assignment and 160 soldiers have set up at the American Legion Earl Graham Post 159 in Bryan. Several hundred more were expected to arrive early today.
The men and women come from three Arkansas state task forces and various units. As of Wednesday night, not even the highest-ranking member had been told what the specific assignment and location would be.
"Texas had requested a multi-functional unit, and we had multiple people under this battalion," said battalion commander Lt. Col. Matt Rhees.
Infantrymen, logistics technicians and vehicle maintenance specialists peppered the grounds of the Expo Center on Wednesday. Many were there in uniform because they had been called in by the state, while a number had volunteered, eager to help their neighbors to the west.
"No matter the situation, you'll be surprised how many people want to volunteer to go out there," said the battalion's command sergeant major, 1st Sgt. Patrick Holthusen. "People are always wanting to help."
This morning, a large portion of those sleeping in cots at the Expo Center will receive their official assignments and the caravan of five-ton water-ready vehicles, Jeeps and Humvees will head out. Many of the soldiers have never visited Brazos County or even Texas, though they are barred from leaving the Expo Center and exploring Aggieland. It was not clear how long they will be deployed in the disaster area, living off of packaged military rations and hoping to be able to make a positive difference in the lives of displaced Texans.
Sgt. Lance Jefferson, 31, of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, normally works as a mailman when he isn't taking part in his monthly National Guard training. The noncommissioned officer has been in the Arkansas National Guard for 10 years, with his last deployment to a Middle Eastern war zone. Jefferson wasn't expecting to be pulled from his job at the post office Friday, unable to celebrate his young son's birthday over the weekend. But the medical logistics specialist is keeping a positive outlook on his orders, encouraged that he'll be serving people in need.
"I just want to help," he noted. "I didn't really know how bad it was at first. I'm still kind of nervous, I don't know what's down there."
Spc. Shanice Mahone, 24, of Stuttgart, Arkansas, said she is very happy to be going to help with the National Guard. She's been in the military for almost six years as a water treatment specialist, and this will be her first assignment taking place outside of her home state.
"I actually planned to help with hurricane relief before I got the call [from the National Guard]," Mahone said. "I have friends who are police officers, and they had wanted to go help, so I had actually started packing to volunteer in Houston and got called in. I'm excited, I really wanted to help."
Mahone just graduated from an area technical college last week, and she is preparing to become a dental assistant. On Friday when she received her orders, she was picking up her two young children from school. The young soldier's brother will be watching over her boys as she enters the floodwaters for several weeks.
"I sat the boys down and told them, and they know when I put on my uniform, that means I have to go away for a minute," she said. "When they saw me put on the uniform they started to cry -- it was heartbreaking."
Several other soldiers discussed how they are unsure what to expect. Many have left behind children in the care of relatives, and had to bid a temporary goodbye to loved ones and significant others. But several soldiers said the work to be done, whatever it may be, is what they feel called to do as servants of the United States and their fellow man.
"It's almost like this is a championship football game for us," said Lt. Col. Rhees. "We've been having 'practice' every month for this, and now we're rolling out."