The U.S. Virgin Islands National Guard turned 44 Oct. 19, and the uniform of the day was white hazmat suits, gloves and surgical masks worn by Guard members who cleaned schools and public facilities on the island of St. Croix that have yet to reopen after Hurricane Maria.
The civic assistance effort was of high importance for Kevre Hendricks, a warrant officer candidate in the Virgin Islands National Guard who also serves as band director at St. Croix Educational Complex (SCEC) High School, a school with a student body population of 1,300.
"While the infrastructure held up really well, the internal effects will take a lot longer to remedy than people think," said Hendricks in reference to the moisture problem that remains over a month after hurricanes Irma and Maria.
"Community involvement is definitely needed to get all schools throughout the Virgin Islands back open. I think there are six to eight schools that may be condemned based on structural damage and water damage alone. Without an education, more students will struggle to get to the next level."
This is a challenging task for a school year that was set to reopen Oct. 30. "We're cleaning five schools to make sure they're back up and running by the end of the month," added Pvt. Jacob Skarp, a member of the Nebraska National Guard.
The civic restoration effort is part of Operation Island Restore, a significant domestic operation and mission that brought approximately 1,900 National Guard members from 37 states and territories to the Virgin Islands following the two category five storms.
"We had an opportunity for the (nation) to see the National Guard in action and understand why it's critical for the National Guard to be in every state and territory," said Brig. Gen. Deborah Howell, adjutant general for the Virgin Islands National Guard.
For over a month, in addition to civic restoration efforts, Guard members have also provided storm survivors with tarps for damaged homes, food, water, aerial ambulatory transport, communications, shelter, power generation, medical treatment, reconnaissance and policing. Others served as liaisons between officials in the Virgin Islands and those in the Washington metropolitan area to ensure manning requirements were met.
"My job was really to connect the right people to make sure they're in the right place at the right time. It's moving people and cargo in, and moving people and cargo out," said Lt. Col. Otis Hooper, a member of the D.C. National Guard who served as a member of the joint enabling team (JET) for the National Guard Bureau.
"Be it Army, Air Force or civilian personnel, I looked for areas that had friction, gaps in communication and found solutions: What needs to be done? When does it need to be done? And how fast does it need to be done?"
"You had to be flexible and able to answer to a lot of different bosses. There are multiple stakeholders and leaders who were making decisions at the civilian level, the Virgin Islands level and the National Guard Bureau," added Maj. Christopher Daleske, another member of the DC National Guard who served with Hooper in the same capacity.
Howell applauded the efforts of Hooper, Daleske and all National Guard members who responded to the Virgin Islands on Oct. 19 during a cake-cutting ceremony at the Virgin Islands National Guard Joint Force Headquarters Building on the island of St. Croix, where she was surrounded by both military and civilian partners. The day also officially marked a shift from the recovery phase, to the restoration phase. Restorations to schools is just one way the Guard is moving the Virgin Islands forward.
"We are returning to normalcy to a certain degree," Howell said. "For the Virgin Islands, tourism is a big industry. The tourism season begins November 1st, and we are trying our best to protect our brand. And the National Guard has been out there doing things to get the roads clear and attractions open. It is critical that the National Guard remain relevant, and we only have two shots to do it -- in domestic support on the homeland or when we go to war."
Pentagram Staff Writer Arthur Mondale can be reached at email@example.com.