Story and photos by MSgt Lynn Means, 136th Airlift Wing, Texas Air National Guard
“We knew we were in a crisis.”
When the water supply of a southern Texas city became tainted and unsafe to drink, the Texas Military Department responded by sending Army National Guardsmen to ensure residents had the water they needed to sustain life.
“Back in September, a little boy lost his life due to a brain eating amoeba,” said Bryan Sidebottom, Lake Charles, Texas deputy emergency manager. “We were trying to figure out what happened, and posted a water advisory. We told everyone the water was not consumable, and to use it only to flush the toilet.”
City officials were faced with the dilemma of ensuring residents had water to drink. Without the free flow of clean water to houses, it was going to be an enormous task.
“We didn’t have enough manpower in the city to hand out water bottles while we continue to provide city services,” said Sidebottom. “It’s a big task, so we requested the Guard.
“Initially we had a do-not-use advisory for the water, then it became a boil water advisory. This meant you could drink it after you boil the water.”
But this still was not a good solution, said Sidebottom, as the elevated levels of chlorine used to disinfect the system caused great concern for the residents.
“We wanted to provide the water to ensure every citizen felt they were being taken care of,” said Sidebottom. “It’s been a very arduous task, but thankfully the Guard came to our aid.”
31 Army National Guardsmen arrived on the morning of September 27, 2020, bringing water to quench the thirst of Lake Jackson residents. Over a span of nearly two weeks, the team handed out cases of water, talked to residents, and expressed their joy at being able to serve.
“Today we handed out 4,400 cases, and we also hit a little over one million water bottles since we started,” said Private 1st Class Markel Locks, a Texas Army National Guardsman assigned to the team. “Seeing people smile when we gave them water, it meant the world to us.
“That’s the reason why I joined. I wanted to help people.”
Locks said he was struck with the depth of the situation when the team had to move hotels because they could not shower.
“We were a little scared,” said Locks. “Water is a part of life. It’s a part of our body.”
But the outpouring of gratitude from the residents had a positive reaction on all the members.
“We all love being here. Every four cars or so, we got cookies, candies, we got to look at all kinds of dogs - it was beautiful! I really love this town! I’ve been thinking about moving here.”
The mission was not without its risks. Several days into the mission, one of the Guardsmen began experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.
“We had a soldier experiencing symptoms and started asking about COVID,” said Juan Guerrero, officer in charge of the mission. “We took him to the hospital, then quarantined him at the hotel. Two days later, his test results came back positive.”
The team was taken off mission while they waited in isolation to see if they also would test positive. The state immediately mustered a Quick Response Force to fill the mission’s needs.
“Within six hours’ notice, the QRF was out here,” said Guerrero. “It was really awesome. Next morning at 7:00, they started doing our thing and they kept it up for two days until we got our tests back.
The rest of the team was relieved to receive a negative COVID test within a couple of days.
“We were ready to get back to work,” said Guerrero. “The city of Lake Jackson was a great host. They made sure we had hot meals and no need to eat MREs. They really boosted our morale.”
Sidebottom explained everyone was immensely grateful for the Citizen Soldiers who came to distribute water to their city.
“One resident wrote she could see everyone was happy to do what they were doing, and she could see that through their smiling eyes,” said Sidebottom, grinning.
His own eyes welled up and he stood a little taller.
“She said it brought tears to her eyes to see their service,” said Sidebottom. “I love that. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it.
Sidebottom said it takes a special person to serve.
“They’re very high spirited,” said Sidebottom. “They’re motivated. They understand the cause, and they’re always ready to serve.
They are Texans serving Texas.