Oklahoma National Guardsmen, many of them combat veterans, were among the first responders to the tornado that tore through Moore, Okla. Monday afternoon.
Roughly 80 soldiers and airmen from nearby bases rushed to the disaster zone early Monday evening, a spokesman says. They brought with them advanced tactical equipment, experience from the war in Afghanistan and an overarching desire to help friends and neighbors.
"It's still chaos," says Maj. Geoff Legler, a spokesman for the Oklahoma National Guard who arrived with the initial quick reaction force Monday night. He first saw victims of the EF4-rated tornado escaping on foot via major avenues, clutching photo albums and pictures, and anything else that would fit into suitcases.
Hundreds of firemen, search and rescue workers and police responded to schools and neighborhoods affected by more than 200 mph winds. Legler flew over the disaster site Tuesday morning and says every intersection was occupied by first responders or members of the National Guard. Roughly 75 percent of the guardsmen based in Norman, just south of Moore, came out last night to work with airmen from the 146th Air Support Operations Squadron stationed out of Will Rogers Air National Guard Base near Oklahoma City.
In August 2012, 17 airmen from that unit were awarded combat distinctions for their service in Afghanistan, according to an Air Force release, including one, then-Tech. Sgt. Raymond Viel, who received the Bronze Star Medal with combat "V" device.
All the guardsmen split into six teams Monday night and patrolled the neighborhoods around Plaza Towers Elementary School using thermal and night vision sensors to detect any survivors in houses or buried beneath rubble.
"This is the first time I know of that National Guard has used that technology in a tornado recovery effort," says Legler.
"There were quite a few soldiers and airmen on the ground last night that got back from Afghanistan just more than a year ago," he adds. "After being deployed to a combat zone, you gain some skills but I don't know that you gain many skills that help in a situation like this."
He and his fellow guardsmen joined up to help friends and families "when they really need it," he says.
Roughly 250 Guardsmen remain in and around Moore performing search and rescue and providing security. They operate from a command center in the local Home Depot parking lot. The Oklahoma National Guard operates under the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, which coordinates with the Guard adjutant general. Legler himself worked on the May 3, 1999 in tornado Moore and remained on active duty for three weeks, which is roughly how long he thinks the Guard will be involved in this latest response.
A spokesman from nearby Tinker Air Force Base did not immediately respond to inquiries about its involvement in the disaster relief. A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Tulsa – the nearest corps district to Moore – said they have not yet received tasks from FEMA but are currently standing by.