'They trusted us': Big Red One Soldiers volunteer to aid Okla. tornado victims
June 6, 2013
When everything was taken away, the small things mattered most.
Whether they were photos, jewelry, military memorabilia, toys, a Christmas ornament or a holographic picture of The Last Supper, each discovery held more significance than the Soldiers first realized. Spc. Bryan Weist dug through rubble for tools, fine china, children's toys and cookbooks. Capt. Erik Anthes and 1st Lt. Mark Keel searched among debris for family photographs and electronics that reminded a mother of a son who didn't survive the massive tornado that ripped through Moore, Okla.
"When you don't have anything and you find something even as minute as a Christmas ornament that goes on the tree every year," Anthes said, then paused. "That lady broke down and was very humbled and thankful."
Keel said they discussed what possessions they would take if a disaster was approaching.
"It's probably not the same stuff as when it actually happens," he said. "You see something minute and that's more important than any of the other things you might have thought about."
Weist, an infantryman assigned to 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, but attached to the Commanding General's Mounted Color Guard, and Anthes and Keel of the battalion's Company E, spent their Memorial Day weekend in Oklahoma helping the clean-up effort in Moore. The tornado hit the Oklahoma City suburb May 20, killing more than 20 people.
Just three days later, Weist was on the road to his home state where he joined with Red Cross volunteers at the Moore Community Center. A Red Cross volunteer at Irwin Army Community Hospital at Fort Riley, Weist spent the next several days digging under ruins that used to be houses. He was emotional when he reached Moore, a town he drove through to get to his hometown of Norman, just a short drive down the interstate from Moore. His first thought: "Where did the homes go?"
Anthes and Keel met up with a group of eight other veterans from across the country who used their logistics training to create a support network in several neighborhoods. The group was self-sustaining, camping out in a parking lot, Anthes said. They used networking and word-of-mouth to find people who needed help salvaging what was left of their belongings.
Maj. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley commanding general, recognized the Soldiers' efforts last week. Funk told Weist he set a true example by sacrificing his own time for others.
"It isn't hard to find a Fort Riley Soldier doing good, like these Soldiers in Oklahoma," Funk said. "'Big Red One' Soldiers are constantly on point for their nation and for their community."
The decision to drive five hours south on a holiday weekend wasn't a hard one for Anthes and Keel.
"We just looked at each other and said, 'Let's go,'" Anthes said.
"I know that if something like that were to happen in this community that I would hope that somebody from another community would come to help us."
They, too, weren't prepared for the sight of destroyed neighborhoods. Both have experienced "close calls" from tornados, hurricanes and earthquakes in their home states, but nothing like what hit Moore. Houses were completely leveled for miles around, Anthes said.
"It's almost like a blast just because everything's laying in the same direction and the wind, so it's like a blast just came through and just leveled everything in its path," Keel, a Union City, Tenn., native, said. "Nothing was standing in the hardest hit areas."
Anthes, a Spring Hill, Fla., native who served multiple combat deployments, said it would take an unprecedented amount of firepower to cause damage on that scale. He and Keel have deployed to places "where forces have gone through and just unleashed the full brunt of their combat power, but still, never anything that bad," Anthes said.
Weist, Anthes and Keel said Moore residents were surprised to learn Solders stationed in Kansas volunteered to help. They weren't expecting the response, Anthes said.
People were more comfortable letting Anthes and Keel's group help once they knew they were veterans, Keel said. That was the key to their success, Anthes said. Almost every family they helped has ties to the military, whether it was through loved ones or their own service.
"They trusted us," Anthes said.
"There was always a connection."
Weist worked night and day beside civilian volunteers, and never forgot about the holiday Americans across the country were enjoying. Soon after arriving in Moore, he noticed American flags attached to everything from rubble to trees. Weist asked to take a muddy flag from the site of a demolished home. He later led a moment of silence at the Moore Community Center and flag raising in honor of Memorial Day. He returned to Fort Riley with the flag, and is working with the CGMCG to carry it during a traditional cavalry charge.
"I didn't want Memorial Day to be forgotten, especially during this disaster," he said.
"Even during this, we don't forget who we are, what we represent."
Weist's experiences Memorial Day weekend made him proud to be an Oklahoman, he said.
"It made me the proudest I'd ever been to do that," he added.
So proud, in fact, he didn't want to leave Oklahoma to return to Kansas.
"It really hurt to have to drive away," Weist said.
Keel said his time in Moore changed him.
"It's, like, started something now," Keel said. "You get the taste for it and you just want to keep helping people."
Anthes said he didn't want anything bad to happen, "but I know if I pay it forward, then when it's my time in need, someone will come in and help."
Keel and Anthes said they switched into a sort of deployment mode while helping in Moore. Much of their efforts were focused near Plaza Towers Elementary School where children lost their lives. Both are fathers.
"We weren't thinking emotionally," Anthes said. "We were just acting."
It wasn't until after the drive home and they got back into the work week that they looked back on their experiences.
"Now that we're here (at Fort Riley), we're able to reflect and it's kind of like …," Anthes said, his voice trailing off. "Man, it's difficult. It's difficult to comprehend."
Weist, Anthes and Keel are just a couple of the brigade's outstanding Soldiers and leaders who are not content with the service they already provide every day, Col. Michael Pappal, 1st ABCT commander, said.
"They see our citizens in need and they go to help," he said. "It makes me immensely proud to see this kind of giving from my Soldiers as well as everybody else from across our great nation who has volunteered in this time of need."