On a mid-October night, an unlikely team of National Guard soldiers from Nebraska stepped off an Air Force tanker in their long-sleeved cammies, not quite ready for the hot, sticky Caribbean night.
Their job: to run the National Guard’s 1,500-member Virgin Islands relief effort following an unprecedented disaster. A month earlier, Hurricanes Irma and Maria, two of the strongest storms ever to hit the Caribbean, had pulverized the tiny archipelago 1,200 miles southeast of Miami. Fredriksted, on the island of St. Croix, would be the home and headquarters for most of them for the next month.
What struck the 58 Nebraska Guard members most was the blackness of a city of 50,000 without power. Fredriksted had absorbed a direct hit by Category 5 winds in Maria’s eyewall.
“It was dark, it was humid,” said Sgt. Michael Frakes, 33, of the 67th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade who took part in the deployment. “It was uncomfortable.”
The soldiers returned to Lincoln on Nov. 15, the last mainland Guard unit to leave the Virgin Islands.
The deployment was part of an extraordinary series of missions for the Nebraska Guard, brought on by an extraordinary series of natural disasters. Nebraska Guard units have been in action continuously since late August, when aviation detachments were called to action after Hurricane Harvey — the wettest and costliest cyclone in U.S. history — struck southeast Texas.