National Guard June 2011 : Page 38
G UARD R OOTS : U.S. V IRGIN I SLANDS Force By Bob Haskell The smallest of the ‘54’ has made big contributions over the last 15 years—just when the nation needed them most OR ITS FIRST 22 years, the U.S. Virgin Islands Na-tional Guard existed so quietly that most Ameri-cans didn’t even consider that such a force existed in the eastern reaches of the Caribbean Sea. Federally recognized in October 1973, the Guard orga-nization in the 135-square-mile U.S. territory just east of Puerto Rico was still coming of age when Hurricane Hugo devastated the region in September 1989. Responding to the disaster that leveled 95 percent of St. Croix, the largest of the three principal islands, was a critical baptism of ﬁre for the V.I. Guard, including the Air Guard combat communications unit established in 1980. But its role began to change in December 1995. That’s when seven Virgin Island Army Guard soldiers were called up for Operation Joint Endeavor, the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. F It was the ﬁrst time V.I. Guard soldiers were mobilized for duty outside the Caribbean, and it would mark the start of some extraordinary episodes for this country’s eastern-most Guard force. The territory had not deployed Guard soldiers to the Persian Gulf War ﬁve years earlier, which did not sit well with some V.I. leaders. “It was embarrassing. We made it known that this would not happen again,” says retired Col. Eddy Charles, who was the Virgin Islands’ 11th adjutant general. At 872 members, including the Air Guard’s 70, the Vir-gin Islands has by far the smallest Guard force among the 54 states and territories. But Maj. Gen. Renaldo Rivera, the adjutant general, claims they serve “with a ﬁre within their hearts” as the eastern-most guardians of the United States. Some highlights: The seven V.I. Army Guard public affairs soldiers were part of the ﬁrst rotation of NATO troops sent to enforce the peace that ended nearly four years of savage ethnic warfare in Bosnia. They served in Hungary and Croatia with mem-bers of the Puerto Rico Guard’s 113th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment from December 1995 until the following July. The harsh Balkan winter, as well as dealing with the ac-tive-component Army, was a culture shock to the subtropi-cal islanders, says Master Sgt. Karen Williams, now the 38 | Na tional Guard
The smallest of the '54' has made big contributions over the last 15 years–just when the nation needed them most
FOR ITS FIRST 22 years, the U.S. Virgin Islands National Guard existed so quietly that most Americans didn't even consider that such a force existed in the eastern reaches of the Caribbean Sea.
Federally recognized in October 1973, the Guard organization in the 135-square-mile U.S. territory just east of Puerto Rico was still coming of age when Hurricane Hugo devastated the region in September 1989.
Responding to the disaster that leveled 95 percent of St. Croix, the largest of the three principal islands, was a critical baptism of fire for the V.I. Guard, including the Air Guard combat communications unit established in 1980.
But its role began to change in December 1995. That's when seven Virgin Island Army Guard soldiers were called up for Operation Joint Endeavor, the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.
It was the first time V.I. Guard soldiers were mobilized for duty outside the Caribbean, and it would mark the start of some extraordinary episodes for this country's eastern-most Guard force.
The territory had not deployed Guard soldiers to the Persian Gulf War five years earlier, which did not sit well with some V.I. leaders.
"It was embarrassing. We made it known that this would not happen again," says retired Col. Eddy Charles, who was the Virgin Islands' 11th adjutant general.
At 872 members, including the Air Guard's 70, the Virgin Islands has by far the smallest Guard force among the 54 states and territories. But Maj. Gen. Renaldo Rivera, the adjutant general, claims they serve "with a fire within their hearts" as the eastern-most guardians of the United States. Some highlights:
The seven V.I. Army Guard public affairs soldiers were part of the first rotation of NATO troops sent to enforce the peace that ended nearly four years of savage ethnic warfare in Bosnia. They served in Hungary and Croatia with members of the Puerto Rico Guard's 113th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment from December 1995 until the following July.
The harsh Balkan winter, as well as dealing with the active- component Army, was a culture shock to the subtropical islanders, says Master Sgt. Karen Williams, now the Virgin Islands Guard's public affairs officer and historian.
She says, "That experience helped me grow to what I am today.
"The public affairs people going in 1995-96 was definitely a milestone for the Virgin Islands, to actually be called for a national mission," says recently retired Brig. Gen. Timothy Lake.
Lake was a V.I. Army Guard major in December 1998 when he was assigned to the White House Communications Agency under President Bill Clinton. He served Clinton for two years and President George W. Bush for two years.
He spent his final two years as commander of the Special Missions Command at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. He is the first, and so far the only, Guard officer to serve presidents in that capacity.
"From the National Guard perspective, that was [validation] that we are in fact true professionals and we can perform the task," says Lake, who retired in January after one more high-priority assignment. He spent a year as deputy commander for the joint task force that guards detainees at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
During his time at Camp David, he arranged for six V.I. Army Guard cooks to prepare meals for staff for nearly three weeks in April 2002, a few months into the war on terrorism. The regular cooks were burned out after working around the clock.
"We went to a full-fledged, 24-hour operation at Camp David," Lake says.
The six V.I. cooks spiced up the Camp David cuisine with a Caribbean flavor, recalls Sgt. 1st Class Charles George.
"It meant a lot to me to know that our training was good enough to get us to Camp David and to do the job," he says.
Another milestone was reached by Col. Caroline Fawkes. She earned her wings as a helicopter pilot in May 1986. That made her the only female aviator in the Virgin Islands Guard, a distinction that no other woman has achieved.
Furthermore, in 1992, she became the first Army Guard woman to fly C-23 Sherpas, the small, twin-engine utility airplanes.
"It shows the world that a small territory can produce exceptional professionals in all career fields," says Fawkes, who logged more than 4,000 accident-free flying hours. Now she's the director of operations and training for the joint task force at Guantanamo Bay.
Ten V.I. Guard soldiers responded to the deadly earthquake that rattled Haiti in January 2010. The water purification detachment's members deployed in May and spent four months producing potable water.
The team produced a benchmark of 1 million gallons of clean water before its mission ended in September, says Capt. Leon Cook, the detachment's commander.
Tragedy struck the V.I. Guard on Jan. 20, 2007. Lt. Col. David Canegata III, 50, and Sgt. 1st Class Floyd Lake, 43, were among 10 Guard soldiers killed when their helicopter was shot down in Iraq.
"That was a big loss to us," says Maj. Gen. Rivera about the V.I. Guard's only two casualties during the war on terrorism. "It is a regrettable part of this business."
Canegata was a highly regarded Army Guard liaison officer on tour in Afghanistan. He had flown to Iraq to visit with other V.I. Guard troops, including his cousin, explains Charles, the adjutant general at that time.
Lake was part of a three-man liaison team from the Army Guard's Readiness Center in Arlington, Va.
"Their deaths were a big blow to the Virgin Islands Guard because we are all one big family," says Lake, the general. Sgt. 1st Class Lake was his cousin.
The V.I. Air National Guard, whose only unit is the 57-member 285th Combat Communications Squadron, is contemplating a new future after 31 years.
"We've asked to become a civil engineer squadron. That's the direction we'd like to go," explains Lt. Col. William Sherrill, director of operations. "But our days as a combat communications unit will end after this year's hurricane season. They've already started packing the equipment."
The unit lost out when the Air Guard's combat communications squadrons were reduced from 23 to 18, explained Maj. Glenda Mathurin-Lee, the squadron's commander.
It was established as a flight of one officer and five enlisted people in February 1980. The territory's Air Guard headquarters was activated three years later, and the $1.4 million Air National Guard station on St. Croix was dedicated in October 1986. The 285th was elevated to squadron status in July 1996.
It earned annual Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards from 1989 to 1991 and for the period from September 1995 to August 1997. It was assigned to the Air Force Space Command when it was ordered to close its doors.
Hurricane Hugo tested the 285th. The Air Guard unit remained the only operational Guard facility on the island and the only official communications link between V.I. and the U.S. mainland. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies relied on its services.
Personnel from the 285th have served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, and along the Southwest border during Operation Jump Start.
The experience of most of its soldiers and airmen has benefited the entire force and the territory, says Rivera, a 31-year military man and Vietnam veteran who has been V.I.'s adjutant general for four years.
"When I joined the Guard 26 years ago, only about 10 or 12 of us were veterans," he says. "Today, we have 664 veterans who have served during recent years. That's about 80 percent of our force. We feel that because of the tours the troops went on, they have a fire within their hearts, especially for the territorial mission."
The 14 Army Guard units are made up of military police, public affairs, medical, maintenance and other support personnel. They assist with homeland security issues vital to V.I.'s 110,000 people, especially counterdrug operations, Rivera says.
The V.I. Guard has come a long way since 113 soldiers, many of them former Army Reservists, stood up as a Headquarters Detachment and the 661st Military Police Company in 1973 under Melvin Evans, the territory's first popularly elected governor.
It had taken 56 years to get to that point. The U.S. paid Denmark $25 million in 1917 for what was then called the Danish West Indies because the Wilson Administration feared Germany would occupy the islands and build a naval or submarine base to attack shipping in the Atlantic and Caribbean.
The Navy administered the territory until 1931. Then it was transferred to the Interior Department.
The Army Reserve was the standing military force until the Guard was created in 1973. Lt. Col. Leayle Galiber was the acting adjutant general until Col. Gerard James, an Army Reserve officer, was appointed adjutant general the following year.
At 38 years old, America's second youngest Guard force–after Guam–is displaying the trappings of maturity. A new $22 million, 42,500-square-foot complex for its 210th Regional Training Institute is under construction on St. Croix. A $26 million, 60,000-square-foot joint-forces headquarters will be built at the same centralized compound. Both are expected to be finished by the middle of the decade, said Col. Aubrey Ruan, chief of the joint staff.
With those new facilities and its new Air Guard mission, the Virgin Islands Guard could be elevated to an even higher level of respectability and responsibility. That would validate the adjutant general's observation that V.I. Guard members "can really, really perform way beyond their expectations."
Bob Haskell is a retired Maine Army National Guard master sergeant and a freelance journalist in Falmouth, Mass. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
ISLAND SOUND The U.S. Virgin Islands National Guard's Sgt. Kevré Hendricks sounds taps at a Memorial Day event in the Christiansted Wharf on St. Croix in 2010. GOOD FIT Sgt. Emile Proctor, a Virgin Islands Army Guard water purification specialist, changes a water hose at a base camp during a humanitarian mission in Haiti last year. Cristian Simescu/The Virgin Islands Daily News
Read the full article at http://www.nationalguardmagazine.com/article/Caribbean+Force/755084/72536/article.html.