Oklahoma Guardsmen work together after Mother Nature declares war on their turf

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Caroline Hayworth
  • 4th Combat Camera Squadron
Airmen assigned to the 146th Air Support Operations Squadron, Will Rogers Air National Guard Base, Okla., found themselves in the midst of a war zone-like environment on May 20th, 2013.

Having recently deployed to Afghanistan with the Oklahoma Army National Guard's 45th Infantry Division, these Airmen are all too familiar with the devastation that can instantly occur in such an environment.

Their deployed mission was to provide air support for ground operations during real combat. They saved lives and defended each other when necessary. That's what friends and neighbors do.

This time the devastation was not thousands of miles from home, but in their own backyards as the enemy blew through their homes, wiping out everything in its path. This time it was personal.

The Enhanced Fujita scale-5 (EF-5) tornado that ravaged their state that Monday threatened their lives and the lives of their families. Touching down in Newcastle, Okla., the deadly tornado stayed on the ground for a terrifying 40 minutes making its way toward the town of Moore. Residents in Oklahoma City suburbs received advanced warnings and took necessary precautions, one of which was piling mattresses on top of themselves in the center of their homes.

Unfortunately, this tornado required more serious, evasive actions. A local news station reported that the base of the twister was nearly two miles wide at one point while it rotated through Moore.

"If you are not underground, you will not survive this storm. You have run out of time," said Gary England, meteorologist, News Channel 9. The horrific path of obliteration included flattened schools, demolished homes, missing children and many trapped under structures.

In the hours immediately following the storm, Governor Mary Fallin activated the Oklahoma Guardsmen to provide search and rescue efforts as well as security for the small town of Moore.

(Staff Sgt. Caroline Hayworth is assigned to the Fourth Combat Camera Squadron, March Air Reserve Base, Calif.)
These guardsmen have worked together before in high-stress situations and performed flawlessly once again. Within hours, the 146th ASOS had troops on the ground, equipped with urban operational equipment such as night vision, thermal imaging and mobile radio communications, the latter providing the largest asset for the Army's command post, as almost all cellular services were lost following the deadly tornado.

"Just like in a deployed environment, we were utilized as a liaison between the Army and their objective," said Lt. Col. James Waltermire, commander, 146th ASOS. "Already being integrated with the 45th Infantry Division, they knew our capabilities. In Afghanistan we were used to provide communication regardless of location or environment. That's what we bring to the fight."

During the first hours, while it was still a Search and Rescue operation, the on-scene commander requested six Airmen from the 146th ASOS to be designated as team leads for each SAR team going out. It was in the first few hours of the search and rescue process that they were most needed.

"All across the United States Air National Guard TACPs (Tactical Air Control Parties) are used in the event of a natural disaster," said 2nd Lt. Gabriel Bird, assistant operations director, 146th ASOS. "TACPs were able to help in hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Gustav, providing the same type of eyes-on-the-ground as the 146th did here in Oklahoma. Our ability to 'speak Army' allowed us to act as a liaison between the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and the 45th Infantry Division when both entities were tasked with securing the area."

"Just like in a combat environment, lives depended on us and we had to act quick," said Waltermire.

In addition to essential communication, the TACPs were also able to provide medical care and transportation for injured residents and fatalities of the storm.

Tech. Sgt. Dan Horgan, Joint Terminal Attack controller, 146th Air Support Operations Squadron, said he was a patrolman in the city of Moore until 2006, when he transferred to Baltimore, where he served as a detective with the Violent Crime Impact Division.

"My experience with law enforcement as well as my deployment to Afghanistan prepared me for this exact moment," Horgan said.

Coming off an overnight shift of searching through homes, a group of TACPs stood in a circle talking with their replacements. A familiar face wearing an Army uniform walked up and bear-hugged one of the men. "Long time, no see man!" The last time these men saw each other was in Afghanistan.

"I think we did a lot of good," Waltermire said.

After the recent deployment, retired Colonel Joel Ward, former 45th Infantry Division Commander, said that the 146th Air Support Operations Squadron was their weapon of choice in the field and added, "We don't go anywhere without them."

Amidst the devastation of the day, these men used their urban training and combat capabilities to work together, rescuing and protecting their very own.

(Staff Sgt. Caroline Hayworth is a resident of Oklahoma and a photojournalist assigned to the 4th Combat Camera Squadron, March Air Reserve Base, Calif.)