It is Sunday afternoon. A few hours ago guardsmen were stationed along the barrier island, huddled in the rain around makeshift fire pits or loaded up in Humvees touring the still-devastated landscape. Now, they have taken their positions in armchairs in front of the big screen to watch with mild interest as the Cowboys take on the Bengals.
More than a month ago the National Guard was deployed in New Jersey to help assist with evacuations prior to Hurricane Sandy. They remained for the immediate aftermath to assist with search and rescue. Finally, what was anticipated as only a three to five day deployment for observation and surveillance has turned into a two-month stay.
The continued presence of the now less than 100 National Guardsmen and women along the Jersey Shore remains an indication that some of the most seriously impacted towns are still days and weeks away from getting to the point where they can patrol themselves, but for the men serving and the residents whose homes they’re guarding, the continued promise of safety is hardly an imposition.
“We like to joke that we provide cheap labor,” Staff Sgt. Ray Butterwick said from Silverton’s EMS station Sunday. “It is cheaper to have us here, but we’re happy to help and everyone that’s here wants us to be here.”
Though the personalities of the guardsmen are different, their lengths of service ranging from months to decades, and their career motivations varied, they’re all here for the same reason, to help. And while a decade of war has distorted the Guard’s purpose and seen more platoon deployments overseas in combat areas than ever before, it’s being able to provide assistance to those who need it most, here, on our shores, that's worthwhile.
“It’s nice to be in the Guard and to do something on the humanitarian side,” Butterwick said of the Sandy duty. “That’s our purpose, that’s what we’re here for: to help our communities in times of disaster.”
And the help has been warranted, too. Butterwick and his platoon, comprised of New Jersey residents, hail mostly from towns that were spared from Sandy, save downed trees and power outages. Even knowing tat the hurricane’s impact on the shore had been significant, it still came as a shock to see it first hand.
“It was a little surreal,” he said. “We came in not knowing to expect but were still surprised at the destruction, houses washed away and missing. It was akin to a warzone. I’ve been in parts of Iraq that I can honestly say are comparable to this.”
Butterwick and his platoon have been stationed in Toms River to patrol Ortley Beach for nearly a month. They’ll remain in Toms River until on or about Jan. 1, according to most estimates. When they first arrived they bunked in an unheated warehouse before being moved to an armory. Eventually, Silverton EMS offered their facility to house locally deployed guardsman, giving them a warm place to relax in between 12-hour shifts.
It was a welcome offer in exchange for their continued vigilance of the barrier island – a separate platoon stationed in Brick covers that township’s section of the barrier island – a deal that’s made sweeter by near-daily offerings of home cooked food and snacks that are delivered to the station and the many variations of a simple thanks extended by local officials and residents who have been looking for a steady hand following Sandy.
“We just want to make it as comfortable as possible for them,” Silverton EMS Vice President Kevin Geoghegan said. “Our crews are in and out so we were happy to share the space. When they have a few hours or a day off, we’re glad they can relax here.”
Silverton isn’t alone in its support of the guardsmen. In Sea Bright, where the National Guard set up a small tent city before moving out over the weekend, local restaurant owners from towns like Sea Bright and Red Bank helped keep them well fed by donating and preparing food on a regular basis. Troops there were also treated to a concert by Train, which filmed a Sandy relief special for the town’s residents and first responders.
And though the deployment hasn’t been one necessarily of excitement for the Guardsmen, it’s been invaluable to the towns and their residents who have struggled in Sandy’s wake.
In the weeks following Sandy, the National Guard provided much-needed 24 hour a day support on the barrier islands. With towns lacking the personnel and resources to provide the same coverage and without the ability to staff the island with State Police, an unlikely prospect simply because of the massive costs that would have followed, the Guard stepped up. Running two, 12-hour shifts a day, the Guard provided a presence, one that offered property owners of impacted towns a feeling of relief and one that warned off prospective looters and, as is still the case in many towns that have seen destruction, disaster tourists.
With power restored to the impacted towns and other services, like natural gas, expected back in the next couple of days, the Guard has scaled down to one shift a day, the overnight 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift. It’s a welcome change for the guardsmen who have been stationed there for the past month, Butterwick said.
“Most of them have responded really well, but it’s kind of a morale thing,” he said. “You work six days a week you’re working 72 hours. It’s been a real challenge though we’ve been lucky to get a day or two off a week.”
The guardsmen who remain have volunteered for the duty, Butterwick said, and are comprised of veterans like himself – Butterwick, a member of the 112 Field Artillery has been in the military for 17 years and has completed tours of both Iraq and Afghanistan – and new Guard recruits like Pvt. Spc. Lawrence Harris who completed basic training over the summer.
“It’s been rewarding,” Harris said. “The best part has been being able to help and meet people from the different towns. It’s been great to build relationships with the other soldiers who are in this with you.”
For all of those serving, Butterwick said the experience has been a good one, if only because the work they’re doing is recognized.
“People are really happy to have us here. They know we’re out there for public safety and to look out for them and they appreciate it,” he said.