Story by Staff Sgt. Michael Giles, Texas Military Department
AUSTIN, Texas – Eleven military vehicles, including 5,000-gallon fuel tankers and trailers carrying 2,500-gallon tankers, merged onto I-10 for the 550-mile trek to Joint Base San Antonio, where they would refuel aircraft dedicated to rescuing Texans affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Enthusiasm was not at an all-time high as these 29 active-duty soldiers from the 1st Armored Division Combat Aviation Brigade took to the roads the morning of Aug. 30, 2017.
“Morale was mixed when leaving on the convoy from Fort Bliss,” said Sgt. Michael McGrady, a squad leader with the Combat Aviation Brigade's 127th Aviation Support Battalion. “Obviously there was the unknown of where we were going to stay, and we didn’t know where we were going. But we are soldiers and keep ourselves resilient to accomplish the mission.”
The hope was to complete the trip in one day, but this proved unfeasible. Had they been able to maintain their maximum speed of 45 mph, they would have arrived in San Antonio that evening. Instead, as the sun started to descend, they found themselves still pushing through the high plains of West Texas.
Choices for how and where to spend the night were limited, and the urgency with which they departed on this mission prevented them from thoroughly planning for such a contingency, explained Capt. Jess Baca, with the 127th’s support operations section.
“Letting them drive through the night to San Antonio was not an option,” Baca said. “It would take far too long in tactical vehicles. We can’t do that to our soldiers.”
Hotels weren’t an option either, Baca explained. There weren’t many around. So she began researching nearby churches and schools for a sheltered floor where the team could sleep in their cots and eat their preserved field rations.
Fortunately, her search led her to the Texas ChalleNGe Academy, a National Guard-run educational facility able to provide beds, showers, hot food, and space to park the 11 wheeled behemoths.
Any other week, the Texas ChalleNGe Academy would have been full of teenagers working to develop into strong adults. With program oversight provided by the Texas Military Department’s Joint Counterdrug Task Force, the ChalleNGe Academy houses, trains and mentors students for 5 1/2-month cycles. Fortunately for soldiers en route to San Antonio, the Academy’s west campus in Sheffield was on a cycle break, leaving the beds, showers and dining facility available for unexpected guests.
Aaron Oliver, program director for the west campus, said that when he received Baca’s call, he didn’t hesitate to accommodate her soldiers.
“We made that happen,” said Oliver, who is also a captain in the Army National Guard’s 176th Engineer Brigade. “In a span of just a few hours, my staff made sure that the bays were clean, the DFAC manager was able to verify that we had enough chow for this company-sized element, and we got it done.”
Most of the soldiers arrived after 9 p.m. and then local community members surprised them with a generous gift.
“Somebody in the community got wind of it somehow and a couple community members showed up with 30 pizzas and several platters of cookies,” Oliver said.
Sgt. Maj. Michael J. Resmondo, the 127th’s support operations section sergeant major, said thanks to the hospitality they received, the soldiers were safer, more rested, and more ready to perform their functions in the hurricane relief efforts.
“It beats going on a 24-hour mission to try to get down to San Antonio, eating MREs and getting rest on the side of the road,” Resmondo said. “It really helped. It probably made things a lot more safe than trying to push through.”
McGrady said the hospitality they received was the answer to the stymied morale.
“Having some hot food along with baked goods, and cold water after a long drive was a great relief and helped everyone relax.”
The warmth and professionalism the ChalleNGe Academy staff showed the members of the 127th reflected the high quality of service they provide to their students, explained William Pettit, a retired Air Force colonel and the TCA state youth programs director.
“It does not surprise me that TCA employees extended hospitality to these active duty soldiers in the same way that they routinely take care of and develop their cadets,” Pettit said.
Pettit also asserted that the interest in supporting fellow military personnel reflected the spirit of camaraderie and collaboration that the Texas Military Department promotes in its programs.
“As a Department of Defense-funded program, we were pleased to have the opportunity to support these soldiers who were deploying to help Texans deal with and recovery from Hurricane Harvey.”