By JEAN CLAVETTE GRAVES
Public affairs specialist
FORT POLK, La. — As the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk was reeling from Hurricane Laura and focusing on power restoration for installation residences, clean up and recovery efforts and returning as quickly as possible to normal operations for the combat training center, one unit stepped up to support a neighboring parish.
The 519th Military Police Battalion is the aligned community partner with Beauregard Parish in support of the public affairs community relations program. Within hours of the storm the Beauregard Parish Sheriff’s Office set up a unified command center. With the help of the chamber of commerce they established a centralized location for donated items. Through grass roots efforts, private organizations and individuals from the region started gathering supplies to send to Deridder, Louisiana.
When notified that the first tractor-trailer delivery was headed to the area, the team realized they didn’t have the manpower to unload, sort, inventory and redistribute the incoming supplies to the 12 distribution locations across the parish. One call to Lt. Col. Shawn Keller, 519th MP Bn commander, from the Greater Beauregard Chamber of Commerce President Lisa Adams was all it took to mobilize volunteers from the unit to help. The next day 20 volunteers from the battalion showed up to assist and continued to work for the week following the storm and throughout Labor Day weekend to support their parish partners.
Keller said the hurricane didn’t just affect Fort Polk but also the surrounding parish communities.
“When the request came for assistance, I didn’t think twice about it,” he said. “At the time we were engaged in protecting and serving the Fort Polk community, but I knew we had Soldiers who could and would love to assist. I also knew that if we needed assistance on post, the Deridder community would do the same for us. Our partnership with the City of Deridder is a solid bond. We look forward to the future and always stand ready to assist our partner community, whatever the need.”
Staff Sgt. Jessica Catlin, religious affairs specialist, Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 519th MP Bn, was charged with organizing and coordinating the volunteer efforts. She was asked to serve as a liaison between the sheriff’s office and Soldiers to ensure they were taken care of and help keep track of volunteer hours.
Catlin said the trucks and trailers full of donated supplies came from across the nation.
“I remember one truck came from Andalusia, Alabama,” she said.
When the supplies arrived, Soldiers would organize the items by nonperishable food items, tarps, cleaning supplies, baby items and more. Once the trucks were unloaded, they separated, sorted, inventoried and evenly divided up the supplies into 12 stacks for delivery to the distribution centers across the parish.
Caitlin said it felt good to give back to the community.
“Beauregard Parish and the City of Deridder are always doing things for the 519th Military Police Battalion,” she said. “Every year they host an organizational day for us in Deridder and I am glad we were able to reciprocate the support when they needed us. We have such a great partnership and relationship with this community, they are always there for us and we should be there for them too.”
Jared Morton, chief deputy of the Beauregard Sheriff’s Office, is the designated point of contact for the donation center. He said deputies have separated themselves from the search, rescue and recovery efforts to provide a central location for donation deliveries and have manned the center every day since the storm.
“The 519th was a phone call away,” he said. “We only had a handful of people available when we first stood up the donation center, and we realized how large this operations was going to be. The next day 20 Soldiers showed up with awesome attitudes ready to work.”
He said the conditions were terrible when the donation center was set up, the heat and humidity was high and there was no power in the building. He said without the Soldier’s volunteer efforts they would not have been able to successfully operate the centralized location.
Morton said the donation center will remain open as long as the need exists. He said 80% of the parish remains without power (as of press time), and BPSO will continue to accept donations as long as people are in need. He said if there is a person with a specific need, they will try to help that person.
“We were notified of a child who required special medication and through our networks were able to have that medication flown in,” he said.
During the interview for this article he received a call regarding a 92-year-old woman who was alone in a remote area of the parish, and he dispatched a patrol to do a welfare check as volunteers were loading up supplies to deliver to her.
One volunteer, Sgt. 1st Class Isaac Otero-Alicea, 204th Military Police Company, 519th MP Bn motor sergeant and Deridder resident, said he volunteered because of the devastation he saw and had seen growing up after storms in Puerto Rico. He said as a kid he wasn’t able to do much.
“This time I had the opportunity to lend a hand and help this community,” he said. “Beauregard Parish has shown a great amount of care for its people and an incredible togetherness. I am glad I was part of this volunteer operation.”