News: Wyoming Guardsmen shore up community, boost morale
Story by 1st Lt. Christian Venhuizen
SARATOGA, Wyo. – Sgt. Mark Ehlman, and Pfc. Robin Martin, began their hourly patrol around their section of water logged Saratoga, Wyo., looking for breaches in the sandbag and dirt levees, holding back the North Platte River, June 8.
During their patrol, they came across another critical part of their mission.
A woman, her hands filled with bags, her car filled with luggage, stared down a six-inch deep moat surrounding the home she was visiting, said Ehlman, of Cheyenne, Wyo. While there were no coats for the two Wyoming Army National guardsmen to lay down for her to cross, they did the next best thing.
“We walked her across the pond,” Ehlman, said. “She walked on her own, but I carried her suit case and Martin [of Riverton] carried the bags that she had.”
After helping to lay and maintain 3.7 miles of sandbags (more than 80,000 total sandbags) along the river and around the homes, the nearly 50 Wyoming guardsmen, both Army and Air, assigned to Saratoga, have been on a mission of preparation, maintenance and goodwill.
Their primary mission began May 31, when five teams of 23 guardsmen were assigned to help communities around the state prepare for floods caused by runoffs from record amounts of snow in the mountains. On order from Gov. Matt Mead, the troops headed to three counties bracing for flood waters.
The crews in Carbon County, a county in the south-central portion of the state, were dispatched to the towns of Saratoga and Baggs, and assisted in other areas of the county. There they filled and emplaced sandbags, laid water-tight material across dirt berms, and assisted local emergency officials.
In both towns, the soldiers and airmen said their mission was to first help build protective berms and fill sandbags. That transitioned to ensuring the sandbags and levees didn’t breech, as the record floodwaters, measured locally in Saratoga at 10.8 feet, pound against the reinforced banks. No “major” breeches or levee failures were reported, releasing large amounts of water into the communities.
“That’s why we have constant patrols,” said Wyoming Air Guard Staff Sgt. Kasie Stairs, of Cheyenne, a medic assigned to Saratoga. “We catch everything before it gets bad.”
Morale and meals
While on patrol, the soldiers and airmen took on a second mission, to make sure the local communities knew that they were not alone.
“As far as our patrol, if it isn’t dealing with the flooding, it’s keeping morale up for the locals,” Ehlman said, noting the neighborly approach he used with each mission.
The sentiment ran both ways.
“The people have been real great, real protective, making sure we’ve been getting good care, especially along the river, the people whose houses we’re saving,” said Stairs.
The Saratoga City Hall is stocked full of treats and snacks of every variety: from home-made brownies, to Girl Scout Cookies, brought in by the community. Local restaurants and organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, provide meals ranging from comfort food to prime rib, and locals are inviting the troops in for home cooked meals, or dropping off pizzas.
“They’re concerned if we’re getting enough food,” said Ehlman. “They want to make sure we’re eating right.” Ehlman and Stairs said they often are asked by the local residents if they’re being fed properly, or if the food is good. Both had no complaints.
To ensure the Guardsmen are fed, the state contracted with a vendor from Riverton, Wyo., to provide meals. According to the troops, those meals are tasty and filling.
Packing their Baggs
Despite the mounting caloric count, the troops are burning it off with around-the-clock efforts to stop the water from running down the local “Main Streets.”
In Baggs, 25-year-old Wyoming Army Guard Sgt. Anthony Goble, of Cheyenne, said he began his tour-of-duty by filling sandbags, building up the community reserves. When the Little Snake River began spilling over the levees, the troops were prepared.
“It was kind of an emergency situation,” he said. “They didn’t anticipate the water carrying up as high as it came up, but we got it braced before it became an issue.” The river crested at 7.5 feet, June 8.
Like Saratoga, Goble said the residents were nothing short of welcoming. “We can’t say enough about the hospitality there,” he said.
The town helped organize morale boosting events like canoe races, in the water left in town after the river was contained.
Since the river crested, half of the 46 soldiers from Baggs were moved. Just seven were moved to Saratoga, the remaining was sent home. Goble was among those moved to Saratoga.
“We all want to stay here. None of us want to go home,” he said. “Every one of my team said ‘Send us where you need us.’”