Part of the 35th Engineering Brigade, the 117th has been a unique group for the past four years. They trained as a CERFP team trained to respond to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high yield explosive situations.
The 117th has been a search and extraction team, prepared to respond to disasters and help rescue people from collapsed buildings. CERFP teams were established under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The Monett group was specifically selected because of its experience as engineers.
"Last year was a great year," said 117th Commander First Sergeant Steve White. "We had a full unit. Out CERFP unit got to respond to an actual incident, the Joplin tornado."
The Monett group was the first National Guard team on the ground following the May 22, 2011, tornado in Joplin, deploying to the scene in 41 minutes. They showed their expertise by setting up a field hospital behind the devastated St. John's Hospital in 12 hours, a job that previously had taken 36 hours to do.
"Two experts from Houston, Texas, came in to help us," White recalled. "We were done when they got there."
Prior to deployment to Joplin, the team had been in Branson, assigned to tear down a field hospital. They completed their work in eight hours on a job expected to take 24 hours.
"A CERPF team is usually a two-year mission," White said. "We had it for four years. I don't know if it was because we were so good or no one else wanted it."
As of April 1, the CERFP mission was transferred to the 735th Quartermaster Company in Rolla and De Soto. Soldiers in those units finished their training in March.
The switch leaves the Monett-based unit, made up of 36 to 39 soldiers, with no new mission. The asphalt equipment needed for the unit's engineering tasks has been due for several years and still has not arrived. White anticipates the equipment will arrive this fall.
"We'll be going to Guatemala, in rotation with the 276th engineers from the Pierce City Armory," said White. "Maybe three or four of us have been there before. A lot of people join the Guard so they can travel, so we'll be getting our chance."
About 75 soldiers will go to Guatemala at a time for a two-week rotation. The large numbers will include reserves from all the branches of the U.S. military, traveling to the Santo Domingo area in the southeast part of Guatemala.
The soldiers of the 117th will begin their rotation on April 14. White will go on the fifth and last rotation, leaving June 9 and returning June 23.
"Operation Beyond Horizon" in Guatemala will be an engineering exercise. White said the soldiers will build schools as well as medical and dental clinics.
"The last time I was there was after Hurricane Mitch (in 1998)," White said. "We were helping people with nothing before the disaster started. It's very worthwhile. We're getting to help the less fortunate."
Even though the wars were winding down in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Missouri Guardsmen represented part of the U.S. forces on the ground for the past 10 years, White said the Missouri National Guard has not significantly changed.
"We're always prepared, always ready to go if something happens in the state," White said. "The Guard has ramped up so much in the last 10 years that I don't know if it will ever slow down."
Local engineers have taken part in other building missions. Last year soldiers from Carthage went to Germany to build roads. Soldiers also deployed to Kosovo to build base camps, guard towers and do engineering work.
"We still see ourselves as engineers," White said. "We continue to emphasize that with recruits. We see more of the world as engineers than the rest of the military. Everybody wants engineers. Military policy and infantry don't build schools. Stateside, they say engineers are the only ones who see something for their money."
In the coming months, White said soldiers in the 117th would focus on their soldier skills, activities they have not done while emphasizing search and extraction. His soldiers would not set aside all of their CERFP training.
"If there was another incident in Joplin, we could get there faster than Rolla could," White said. "We're small, and we can get together quickly."
White's soldiers have talked about seeking civilian careers as emergency responders, firemen and police after their specialized training.
"Those occupations are seeking someone with more skills these days," White said. "With our hazmat and chemical training and experience as first responders, we have a skill set no one else entering the field will have."
Soldiers in the 117th will continue to train as engineers. White did not anticipate any major changes at the Monett Armory in the coming year.
"We'll have a more peaceful year ahead, we hope," White said. "We're always looking for good people."
For more information about joining the National Guard and the 117th Asphalt Team, call Guard recruiter Steve Maples in Aurora at 417-678-4540.