By Lt. Col. John Hall, Michigan National GuardDecember 18, 2018
ST. CROIX, Virgin Islands -- One hundred and thirty Soldiers from the Michigan National Guard arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands, prepared to provide disaster assistance, less than 20 hours after notification in Detroit, over 1,000 miles away.
"What makes this exercise really unique is that, one, this is the first time we've ever done it. We've never done an EDRE (Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise) like this. We're truly putting Michigan and the U.S. Virgin Islands on the map because, if you think back to what happened in September of 2017, when hurricane Maria swept through and did some severe damage to the islands as well as Puerto Rico. That really set the conditions for us to build this exercise and a partnership with the Virgin Islands to support what is going to be a long-time partnership with our governor and their governor. It's really that hand-in-hand relationship," said Col. Scott Hiipakka, commander of the 177th Military Police Brigade.
The 177th Military Police Brigade initiated this Joint-Multi-state operation with an alert of the 210th Military Police Battalion at midnight on Dec. 13. This call directed Soldiers to report to the Taylor, Michigan, Armory in four hours for an Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise to validate their capacity to provide immediate response. At the 4:00 a.m. initial formation all 130 Soldiers were present, prepared for the activation. From this point the Soldiers had four hours to gather their equipment, prepare their vehicles for the movement to Selfridge Air National Guard Base where the 172nd Air Lift Wing of the Mississippi National Guard was waiting to load their vehicles onto their C-17 Globemaster aircraft. Five hours after takeoff over the snow-covered fields of Michigan, they landed in the balmy airfield in St. Croix, where they leaders from the Virgin Islands National Guard greeted them.
The Michigan Soldiers were provided with an updated mission brief then promptly mobilized to two critical venues for their training: Henry E. Rohlston International Airport in Christiansted and the Ann E. Abramson Marine Facility in Frederiksted.
The key tasks included the validation of the readiness of the Michigan National Guard Quick Reaction Force to notify, assemble, and deploy within eight hours and load planning for movement. An increase in both the Michigan and Virgin Islands National Guard's interagency understanding and cooperation through the incorporation of military and civilian partners in the training resulted.
In this training scenario a Category 4 hurricane named Scott is forecast to hit the U.S. Virgin Islands in the next 36 hours. The governor of the Virgin Islands has declared a State of Emergency in anticipation of the predicted damage from Hurricane Scott. The local authorities have identified hardened facilities for life-saving and life-sustaining commodities. These locations are planned to be used as the primary bulk points of distribution following the hurricane. Virgin Island National Guard members have already been activated and are readying to provide support to the local population.
Because of the anticipated damage of the coming storm, the security requirement exceeds their capabilities. As a result, the Virgin Islands National Guard has requested security assistance through National Guard Bureau, which requests support from the governor of Michigan and the Michigan National Guard in the Hurricane Scott disaster relief efforts.
This scenario and the Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise were developed as a result of the significant damage and subsequent human suffering caused by Hurricane Maria in the fall of 2017. In a review of the support needed for such a disaster, a state partnership was created between the Michigan and Virgin Islands National Guard to improve the capabilities of both organizations in preparation for the next big storm to threaten the islands.
The leadership from the Virgin Islands National Guard was on the tarmac along with the advance party from the Michigan National Guard to greet the two Mississippi National Guard C-17s carrying the Michigan based 177th Military Police Brigade Quick Reaction Force when they arrived late on the night of December 13th.
Reception, staging, onward movement, and integration (RSOI), the process that transitions personnel and equipment arriving in a theater into operationally viable forces, was conducted at the Virgin Islands National Guard Joint Forces Headquarters before the Soldiers were allowed to bed down to weather the notional Hurricane Scott which made landfall at midnight. Once the notional storm passed at 4:30 a.m., Michigan National Guard QRF moved to critical sites at the airport and port facilities. At 6 a.m. the ORF reported they were "fully mission capable," with their first additional task of clearing debris from the airfield to allow for the arrival of emergency supplies.
Through a series of injects, the teams are validated on their ability to respond to standard to a variety of emergency developments. Col. Hiipakka added, "From a vignette or scenario perspective, there will be multiple incidents to enforce their law enforcement response." These range from discovering a body on the beach at the pier and on the airfield perimeter, lawful and attempted unlawful entry, request for medical assistance, possession of contraband, civilian's requests for information, medical evacuation, mission military police team and response and a physical altercation between relief workers.
The Michigan National Guard Soldiers interacted with compassion and respect when engaging with the role players from the Virgin Islands. When responding to a request for assistance from citizen, 2nd Lt. Jennifer Swymeler stated what attitude her Soldiers should have. "We'll have to go out there. What can I do to help you? What can I do to make it better?" The Michigan military police provided a perfect blend of toughness when protecting the facilities, balanced with tenderness when attempting to tend to the needs of those impacted by the hurricane.
The capstone event occurred at midnight and 2 a.m. when all the role players from the Virgin Islands National Guard, lead by instigators due to increased frustration, create an escalated civil disturbance, challenging the security and perimeter of both facilities. Leaders of the group were identified to negotiate a de-escalation of hostilities and local police were called to respond.
When the Virgin Islands Police arrived, they talked with the protesters, arrested the agitators while the Michigan National Guard Military Police tended to the needs of the citizens. "This coordinated effort between the port authority, Virgin Islands Police and the Sold[ers of the Virgin Islands and Michigan National Guard has demonstrated a readiness to respond to the needs of the citizens of St. Croix in the event of a hurricane in the Virgin Islands. We are proud of the relationship we have developed and stand ready to work side by side with the Virgin Islands to provide support and ease the suffering of the local population," said Lt. Col. Russel Harden, 210th Military Police Battalion commander.
"At the conclusion of Caribbean Thunder, the exercise achieved all the exercise objectives. The unit was able to load out and move within eight hours and arrive in St. Croix pre-storm and it was able to build and integrate with our local partners, the Virgin Islands National Guard and the Virgin Islands Port Authority, seamlessly. Then they were able to conduct their primary operations, which were security operations, both at the Virgin Islands Frederiksted Port as well as the airport here in St. Croix. The Soldiers learned a lot; they gained new friends in the Virgin Islands and they validated as Michigan's QRF for 2018," said Lt. Col. Raymond Stemitz of the 177 Military Police Brigade.
Col. Shawn Harris, director of the Virgin Islands National Guard, commended the Michigan Soldiers, saying, "You are tough, tired and tested!"
"If the U.S. VI ever needs help, we're here to answer the call," concluded Hiipakka.
The units participating in Caribbean Thunder from Michigan include: Michigan National Guard Joint Staff, 177th Military Police Brigade, 210th Military Police Battalion, 1775th and 1776th Military Police Companies. Participating from the Virgin Islands are the Virgin Islands National Guard, Port Authority, and Police Departments. Providing aviation support was the 172nd Air Wing of the Mississippi National Guard.