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Irma brings out best in local veterans
Vero Beach Newsweekly - 9/27/2017
(Editor's note: Capt. Doy Demsick is Program Manager of the Veterans Council of Indian River County, this is his account of how the veteran community responded to Hurricane Irma.)
It's Wednesday, Sept. 6. Irma is a Category 5 hurricane with winds of 185 miles per hour. We don't know where or when, but the predictions are rolling in that the massive storm will to make an assault on Florida.
I'm preparing for the Veterans Council's monthly meeting to make major decisions about the county's support of our vets. I peel my eyes off my computer screen, blinking and catch my cell phone flash with a new message.
The note reads: "Hey, sir, I'm an infantry Marine and we should get a roster check in sheet for the storm." It's from Jamison Ledger.
I had never even heard of this guy, but Marine Corps officers are used to Marines informing them of some neglected duty. I admit I'd be nowhere without my non-commissioned officers and junior enlisted Marines.
I respond, "Roger that, Marine. Take point."
It's my way of telling him, "Good idea, motivator. Get to work and I'll back your play." When the bad guys come creeping round, warriors you've never met are suddenly in the fight with the regulars. Veterans are known for rising from apparent slumber to meet challenges. I've got a theory that we need it.
I've seen too many veterans struggle with the mundane nature of day-to-day life. Like me, they are spoiling for a problem to solve. They know what it means to force changes on an environment and it's a buzz like no other.
You know what the best thing for a fighter coming down off that buzz is? Put them to work. Find a problem or a bad guy to take care of and stand back.
This time the bad guy was named Irma and this new fighter was calling me out.
Challenge accepted. Nobody puts an Excel doc together like this Captain.
We post on our online message group and shoot messages to our vets off the social media grid and within a few days have enough responses to build a roster complete with contact information, requests for check-ins, available resources and three team leads. The leads would be responsible for calling around after the storm and getting status reports.
In the meantime, the requests for support are rolling into the Veterans Council – mainly disabled veterans who can't get their shutters up. This stuff is child's play for a motivated team.
Within a couple posts and phone calls, Jorge Payne from the Indian River County Sheriff's Office and Robert Gonzales, an Army artillery vet who spends his time finding disabled veterans employment at Career Source sign up.
Now it's Friday and one of our members, Brian Cook, has signed on for the County Emergency Operations Center along with long-time support Major Eric Flowers and Air Force Colonel Marty Zickert.
They can provide us valuable information and call on our resources as needed.
One of our roster team leads and a local Marine business-owner, Jason Patzer, build us a Zello Channel for communication and passes word regularly, requiring the other vets to check in.
From combat to personal crisis, it's important to have that friendly voice on the other end of the line.
Communication is everything.
The rest of the weekend is filled with radio checks, final preparations and the dissemination of information. This is familiar territory to anyone experienced with military operations.
You never know when the first round hits or when the call comes over the radio and tells you to get moving.
When is Irma going to turn and face us?
Throughout, there is this shared experience of the impending unknown. I am reminded of how amazing it is to work with folks who have experienced dire circumstances; their ability to rise above adversity with an impossibly positive outlook.
These are Americans who can stare terror in the face unblinkingly and come across the line as cool cucumbers.
Sunday night our communication is knocked out by the enemy little by little. The channel, once populated with cheerful teammates trash-talking each other over their branch of service, choice of vehicle or anything worth throwing, has become more and more silent as high winds kill power and internet across the county.
It's dark by the time I lose electricity and I'm rendered useless as a coordinator. But I still have cell phone reception. Col. Zickert lets me know our new homeless veterans housing duplex has been hit by a giant oak and Cook immediately volunteered our quick reaction force.
But they won't let us loose until the storm calms. I drift into a wide-eyed, zombie-like non-sleep. I cannot wait to watch my veterans make things happen.
This homeless veteran duplex is important to us. Every Dream Has a Price, run by Julianne Renk Price, re-built it just last year and one of our most mission-driven veteran organizations, the Vietnam Veterans of Indian River County, manages it.
Most counties do not have homeless veterans support. Ours does.
It's the Monday morning after Irma now and as the weather dies down my veterans show up at the property with chainsaws and their collections of tools.
I take one look at the size of the tree that was bracing itself on the roof and think there is no way. This will take a crane.
As in all things, I should have faith in my veterans.
Patzer and Jason Cranman, local vet and historian, are quickly up on the roof burning through chainsaw chains and tossing man-sized wood chunks down at us, while our older veterans watched with appreciation and jealousy. They would give anything to be up there on that chainsaw.
Soon enough Brian Woodrow, a retired Army staff sergeant and his son Noah, show up and get to work without a word. Scott Keele, our Vero Beach Veterans: Next Generation Commander, arrives and is better on a chainsaw than anyone suspected from a Navy man.
Sheriff's officer Teddy Floyd keeps making runs for supplies, whether we ask him or not. It's his idea to use a rope to pull that gigantic trunk away from the roof while our cutting team takes out the supports of the branches caught to the roof.
People are moving quickly without direction. This is an officer's dream.
After we've finished, a local man shows up seeking a chainsaw to help him down the road from us. He is ecstatic when he gets not only a chainsaw but a Marine wielding it. Patzer goes up several notches in my book.
It's finally time to get back to cleaning our own properties, but no one wants to leave. Unspoken, we all realize the storm is really over.
I return home and let my adrenaline-high dissolve into a void that outlives usefulness. I wait.
I can't answer the phone fast enough when Cook calls. The county needs us again. Thank God.
The Veterans Council of Indian River County, supports all IRC veterans through the collective effort of veterans' organizations, civic associations and the local community, to raise awareness of veterans' needs and of their contributions to society.
Capt. Doy Demsick