FORT POLK, La. (KALB) - At the end of October, 120 Fort Polk soldiers in 46th Engineer Battalion deployed to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida for recovery operations after Hurricane Michael destroyed 90 percent of the installation.
Soldiers in 46th Engineer Battalion helped remove trees and other debris left behind by Hurricane Michael at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. | Photo credit: Spc. Erica Daniel
Command Sergeant Major James Mitchell drew on his experience as a young soldier in 1992, when his unit helped the South Florida community after Hurricane Andrew.
"Seeing almost every tree, snapped in half and hangers and houses and most of their facilities just destroyed at Tyndall AFB it just broke my heart and it brought me back to those days in 1992."
He added that one of the most important lessons he passed on to younger soldiers was to make sure that all their vehicles were in top condition and every piece of equipment was secured before making the long 600-mile drive to their destination.
Although the CSM prepared his troops for the worst, the full scope of the devastation could only be experienced first-hand. The site was overwhelming for Specialist Erica Daniel of Fort Walton Beach and Specialist Jason Kopp from the Lynn Haven and Callaway area. Both have retired and active duty Air Force members in their family, so Tyndall was a part of their childhood.
"Just having those memories and just knowing there's certain places and things that will never be the same...I was in tears," said Spc. Kopp.
Spc. Daniel added that "Just seeing the hangers crushed up, cars flipped over. Trees everywhere. I just couldn't believe it."
For three weeks, soldiers worked non-stop covering roofs with a blue tarp, surveying, clearing debris and cutting trees. A lot of them. CSM Mitchell joked, "we've got some chainsaw masters in this battalion now!"
Soldiers often worked for up to 10 hours nearly every day. But it was a mission that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
"Just to be there on post, just to be there in Panama City I was actually honored and happy to help. I would do it again any day," said Spc. Daniel.
"It was knowing that some families were actually going to be able to come back and pick up their lives and go back to normal," said an emotional Spc. Kopp. "and that we were actually helping to make that happen for them. You know, that we were giving them their normal life back."
The soldier hopes to make it back to Panama City for the holidays to help family and friends with their damaged homes.