The first contingent of 500 Utah National Guard soldiers took off Sunday for parts of southwestern Louisiana battered by Hurricane Rita. Troops remarked that they were glad to help Americans in need.
About 50 soldiers and piles of gear left the Guard's air base, 764 N. 2200 West, aboard two C-130 planes sent by the National Guard organizations of Missouri and Wyoming. The transports flew in for the trip because the Utah Guard's planes are smaller.
Another eight or 10 soldiers left by ground vehicle on Sunday.
The immediate destination was Alexandria, La., but officers were unsure where they would be deployed from there.
Utah is providing the second- or third-largest group of volunteers of the dozen states responding to Louisiana's call for help.
The soldiers took personal gear like helmets and rifles, food and water, as well as communications equipment and around five Zodiac inflatable boats. Members of the advance detachment will set up operations, while the rest were to leave on Monday and Tuesday.
Col. Jeffrey Mitchell, Centerville, said Guard volunteers were told they could be gone 45 days, but the period isn't definite. "We could be back in 10, we could be gone for 90," said Mitchell, a 25-year veteran of the Guard who helped in the 1992 Hurricane Andrew emergency.
"We're going down to Louisiana to help out folks there," said Mitchell.
"When it comes to a hurricane, it is absolutely chaotic," he said. The Utahns will try to "dive in and try to make sense out of chaos."
During Hurricane Andrew, he thought "the weird actually looks normal," like seeing a yacht on top of a home.
He has a wife and four children, including a son who is in the National Guard and could leave for hurricane duty himself. "He might be getting a phone call" to travel to the devastated areas, Mitchell added.
With the amount of equipment and soldiers leaving, Mitchell said, "It looks like we're going down for the long haul." He said he is excited, "because this is what the Guard is all about."
Interviewed aboard one of the planes while her fellow soldiers were settling into their seats, Spec. Sylvia Huffaker, Salt Lake City, said she had "kind of mixed feelings — excited, don't know what to expect." The soldiers were seated in four rows along the plane's large windowless hold.
Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde, who carried a rifle on his back, said he returned two months ago from duty at Guantanamo, Cuba. "We found out last night about 10 o'clock" that volunteers were needed in Louisiana, he said.
"There's a lot we don't know. We'll find out when we get there," Hyde added.
"Utah National Guard: Anything, anywhere, anytime, bar nothing," said Capt. David Reeve, Magna. Because some television cameras weren't trained on him yet, he was obligated to repeat the statement a couple of times.
"Just another job," he said of the hurricane relief effort. "Been doing this for 18 years."
A communications expert, he will manage radios, telephones and other devices.
Maj. Andrew Archuleta, a resident of West Point, was among the Utah Guard members who helped earlier this month with Hurricane Katrina relief. He had been telling his fellow soldiers what to expect.
The state's emergency communications package promises to be of great help in heavily struck areas, he said.
The system can be set up rapidly, providing telephone, radio and Internet communications. "We provide such a huge asset," he said. "We go down and provide communications to anyone who needs it."
Maj. Hank McIntire said soldiers volunteered from many Guard units, from the artillery and Special Forces to engineers and medical specialists.
The request for help came Saturday afternoon, and some of the Utahns were up all night preparing for the trip. They were ready at short notice, "just like the minutemen of 1775," he said.
They will provide a military presence and help keep order if needed.
"It's one thing we can do" during the emergency. "We're all about homeland defense in the National Guard."
Although Utah is not stressed by a disaster, McIntire said, "we can go and help somebody who has a need elsewhere. We're pleased and happy to do it."