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Oklahoma tornadoes: Battle-hardened National Guardsmen work different kind of mission in Moore

Oklahoma National Guard soldiers are securing neighborhoods destroyed in Monday's massive tornado that rolled through parts of Oklahoma City and Moore.
BY BRYAN DEAN Modified: May 22, 2013 at 9:56 pm •  Published: May 22, 2013

— The landscape Sgt. Justin Taylor saw Wednesday was reminiscent of the worst areas he saw while on a combat tour last year in Afghanistan. But this was home.

Taylor, 27, of Blanchard, is one of 300 Oklahoma National Guard soldiers and airmen aiding local law enforcement as they secure neighborhoods in tornado-ravaged Moore. Most of those working the mission have served multiple combat tours.

Even driving into the area was a shock for Taylor, who knows the area well because he now lives in Norman and drives through Moore often.

“Some of the buildings … that got destroyed are landmarks that you are used to seeing,” Taylor said. “It almost gives you a feeling of being in a strange place when you drive by. You don't recognize it. It's not like home.”

Col. Van Kinchen, commander of the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, is leading the National Guard's mission in Moore. His Moore residence was damaged in the storm.

“We were on the fringe,” Kinchen said. “It makes it that much more personal. It makes what we do that much more important. I'm dealing with my own friends and neighbors and family that are all being affected by this.”

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, guardsmen helped with search and rescue efforts. But their missions shifted Wednesday as they primarily worked security.

Taylor said the mission is satisfying — everyone wants to help. It is also far simpler than patrolling villages or driving dangerous roads in Afghanistan.

“The only thing I've got to worry about is somebody yelling at me,” Taylor said. “No one is trying to kill me.”

Dealing with hostility

Kinchen said local law enforcement leaders are making the decisions on who will be allowed in and at what time.

“In some cases we have people who don't have driver's licenses or anything, and we are just trying to be reasonable and help the people who need to be in there get in there,” he said.

Getting around the area is frustrating. Downed power poles still block many streets in the area and ruptured gas lines are a concern. Wednesday morning, no one was allowed into the worst-hit neighborhoods in Moore, including residents.

“Some people don't understand that, and we get some hostility when we are turning people away from where they live,” Taylor said. “These people lost pretty much everything they owned, most of them. They just want to get in and get what they can.”

Sgt. Avery Thompson, 26, of Oklahoma City, worked a security checkpoint at a neighborhood along Telephone Road north of SW 19. At least, it used to be a neighborhood.

The homes behind Thompson were turned into piles of broken wood and debris by the tornado. Trees were stripped of every leaf; most of their bark and branches mangled.

“People who live in here are emotional right now,” Thompson said. “Some of them have lost a loved one. But it's really dangerous to try and dig through the debris right now. There is a lot of broken wood and glass and nails everywhere. We are trying to keep everyone safe.”

‘We can get it done'

Thompson said seeing the scale of the damage makes it hard to imagine how everything will be cleaned and cleared away and rebuilt, but he knows it will happen.

Volunteers cleaned a cemetery in the area in just a few hours Wednesday morning.

“We can get it done,” Thompson said. “The unique thing about Oklahomans is: we all want to help out. All of us here volunteered.”

The Guard asked Monday night for 300 volunteers to work in the Moore area.

They got thousands. They are working 12-hour shifts, 150 at a time.

If any of them tire, there will be plenty to step in, Kinchen said.

“We've got soldiers from all over the state who have volunteered and are just waiting for us to call them,” he said.

“In the end, that is part of what we want to do. We want to support our fellow Oklahomans.”

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