Photo submitted by francisco herrera
Lisa Laramie waves at a U.S. Army helicopter from her new front yard in Stockbridge days after Tropical Storm Irene. The helicopter was transporting Vermont National Guard members away from the scene.
The big, brick building on the hill in Rutland Town is quiet today.
The gray, fold-out tables where National Guard troops arm-wrestled, read and ate are put away.
The shiny steel kitchen where local volunteers made food and collected dozens of donated plates of baked goods is locked.
And the rooms where young soldiers — men and women, wives and brothers — rested for a few hours a night on cots have been turned into offices for high-ranking administrators.
It is a stark contrast. Only a year ago, the new Armed Forces Center off Post Road was where about 200 Maine National Guardsmen were first welcomed to Vermont with their parade of bulldozers, dump trucks and excavators, was a hub of activity in the days following Tropical Storm Irene. It acted as the staging area for 500 out-of-state troops from Maine, Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia.
On a recent Friday afternoon, there were few Vermont Guard members in the hallways, or working on humvees in the back.
There were no volunteers like a Rutland Town farmer, 90-year-old Chip Young, who spent nearly every morning for weeks a year ago serving up buttered toast at breakfast.
Or Karen Pezzetti, a mom, wife and aide at Rutland Town School, who served troops dinner with a wide smile nearly every night.
“They put their personal lives on hold to be able to come and assist us. One was even gonna get married. Hopefully, our guardsmembers would be doing the same for them,” Pezzetti said.
In the days following the storm, the Vermont National Guard had 700 members mobilized to react to the devastation.
But that wasn’t enough, according to Brian Searles, Vermont’s Secretary of Transportation.
A call was made for more manpower and equipment — to deliver food, water and blankets to those who lost homes or had been cut off by washed-away roads — or both.
Then, those same troops were asked to stay longer to rebuild roads. Vermont only had two engineer companies and limited heavy equipment.
Maine arrived with 169 pieces.
“The Vermont National Guard was overwhelmed,” said Sgt. First Class David Kitchin, one of few at the Armed Forces Center earlier this month. The center has become the new Rutland armory for local guardsmen.
“If not for Maine and other states, we would have definitely had issues,” he said.
More than 2,500 Guard members worked to repair Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico through the Labor Day weekend last year.
Many in the Vermont Guard had been home from Afghanistan for just nine months before the storm hit. None of them expected it would be that bad, according to Command Sgt. Major Cisco Herrera.
“You never really expect to do any homeland response stuff. We are in Vermont, what happens in Vermont? We don’t get wildfires, hurricanes or tornadoes. You don’t really expect it,” Herrera said. “It surprised a lot of us.”
But even with that surprise, the National Guard was prepared.
It is just what they do, Kitchin said.
Asked whether he knew of any guardsmen who sacrificed time to respond to the storm, Kitchin said, “Nobody made any.”
He said his fondest memory of the recovery effort was a story about people — some of his own.
“Having all the soldiers out on the Fair Haven landing, loading the (helicopters), mission after mission, with cots, food, water and blankets,” Kitchin said.
Herrera said he won’t soon forget the bond Guard members made with each other and within the community.
He said serving overseas is different than serving during Irene. In Afghanistan, there always could be a threat right around the corner.
In Vermont, during Irene, it was about helping friends and neighbors; that stress wasn’t there, Hererra said.
“I won’t forget that woman in Stockbridge, standing in her yard and waving up to our helicopter,” he said. “She lost her husband and her house and everything in it. This spring, the Guard guys went down and took sand and dirt out of her yard. She has green grass and gardens again.”
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