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Guardsmen find Joplin duty more challenging than Afghanistan

Monday, June 6, 2011

A member of the 203rd Engineer Battalion, Missouri Army National Guard, assists a Missouri Highway Patrol officer man a traffic control checkpoint here Monday evening. Members of the 203rd helped local police staff 33 checkpoints around the city in the wake of Sunday's devastating tornado that left more than 115 people dead and thousands of properties damaged. [U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jon E. Dougherty]
JOPLIN, Mo.----A year ago the 203rd Engineer Battalion, Missouri Army National Guard, woke up every day in a war zone. But on Sunday, one of the season's deadliest tornados blew through this southwest Missouri community of 46,000, leaving behind a path of devastation worse than most of these combat engineers experienced in Afghanistan.

Charged with clearing improvised explosive devices from hundreds of kilometers of bumpy, dusty----and dangerous ----roads in the war-torn country's restive east, members of the 203rd served their nation doing one of the hardest jobs in theater.

Now they have stepped up to serve their state and community, a task made equally daunting by the sheer level of destruction left in the wake of a six-mile-long, half-mile wide swath of pure terror. And most of them say dealing with the tornado and its aftermath is by far much harder on them than eluding Taliban IEDs and rocket fire.

"It wasn't like anything I saw in Afghanistan," said Staff Sgt. Mike Byers, with the 203rd's Headquarters and Headquarters Company supply section. Byers, who watched the storm touch down on local television, immediately left his home north of town en route to the unit's armory on 32nd street. But he couldn't get there right away.

"I headed for 20th street because from the reports it sounded like [the tornado] hit there pretty good," Byers said. The destruction he witnessed was unimaginable.

"There were victims everywhere----people bleeding," he said, adding that he and a friend who was with him immediately began pulling victims to safety. Compared to Afghanistan, he said, the effects of the storm on his hometown was much more difficult to comprehend.

"The worst thing is to have so many victims at once," said Byers. "In Afghanistan, when you hit an IED, there are far fewer casualties."

Sgt. 1st Class Tim Goth, the 203rd HHC's readiness noncommissioned officer, said the devastation here was much worse than anything he witnessed overseas.

"There were people coming up out of the neighborhood (near the armory) who were pretty much distraught, barefoot, soaked to the bone -- very confused and disoriented," Goth said. "We didn't have water; we didn't have much of anything at that point.

"I gave them some clothes that I had here at the armory. I gave them some MRE's (Meals Ready to Eat----portable meals given to Soldiers in the field), just whatever I could to help them out," he said.

Goth said that while he was proud to serve the nation with his battalion, serving his own community is a higher calling.

"Being closer to home, it's not that you have more compassion for the people involved, but it's your hometown, and it's just tough to see your neighbors, friends, family go through this," said Goth. "The amount of devastation and seeing other soldiers' families that were affected, it's tough. It's real tough."

More so than being in Afghanistan?

"Definitely," he said. "You're in a different mode. It's more personal here----its home."

Spc. Chris Moss, a member of the 203rd who lives in nearby Galena, Kan., agreed. Though he initially responded to the disaster as a member of his community's fire department, within a few hours of the tornado he reported to the armory once he got the call he was being mobilized.

Moss saw firsthand the scenes of death and destruction the tornado left behind when he first arrived on the scene to provide assistance.

"When the Alabama tornadoes hit, you know, I felt for them. I kind of knew a little about what they were going through," Moss said. "Now I know exactly what they went through. I had some good (Guard) friends who lost everything."

Though part of his job as a firefighter is to deal with such emergencies, Moss said it's harder to do when it happens in your own community, adding that he continued to provide medical assistance and triage for civilian emergency crews.

First Lt. Mitchell Boatright, the assistant operations officer for the 203rd, said he has been at the staging point at the National Guard armory in nearby Carthage since the storm and has not seen the damage, but the tornado was very personal for him nonetheless in that it ripped the roof off the home of his sister and brother-in-law.

"She's okay, but it was close," Boatright said. "They were in the center of the path, in the basement of their house when the roof came off."

Though under fire a number of times overseas, Boatright said dealing with the storm and its aftermath is actually worse.

"The damage here is to family and friends," he said. Overseas, "you have a small group that is your family. Here, it's the whole community."

These combat engineers all agreed----watching their community be torn apart and its citizens suffer is worse than anything the enemy can dish out. But they also realize they are in the best possible position to help.

"You're just a person helping another person," said Moss.

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