By Maj. Benjamin Gruver
No one wants bad things to happen, especially in their own communities. However, for two Kansas National Guardsmen, the devastation of recent floods was a rejuvenating experience.
Torrential rains and thunderstorms hit Kansas in late May, and flooding became an imminent danger for several communities downstream from levees and dams that were close to overflowing. With the addition of a destructive tornado that hit Douglas and Leavenworth counties, the emergency situation in Kansas escalated to disastrous proportions.
The State Emergency Operations Center in Topeka was activated to provide support to local authorities responding to the events and the Kansas Division of Emergency Management called on Soldiers and Airmen of the Kansas National Guard to lend a helping hand to their fellow Kansans.
One of those Guardsmen, Staff Sgt. Michael Eicher of the 891st Forward Support Company, had no problem volunteering.
“That’s why I signed up to be in the National Guard,” Eicher said, “to help people.”
Prior to volunteering, Eicher, who currently resides in Topeka, had already made up his mind it was time to call it quits to his military career after giving nearly 20 years of service. Although not a Kansas native, his active duty service led him to the state when he was stationed to Fort Riley in 1993. It was not long after he met his wife and, at that time, decided to leave the military to raise a family.
“Then 9/11 happened,” said Eicher. “My wife looked at me one day and said ‘You miss it, don’t you?’ I said ‘Yeah, big time,’ and she said ‘You do what you got to do.’”
Eicher restarted his military career by enlisting into the Kansas National Guard. However, as he closed in on completing 20 years of service, Eicher had it in his mind to finally retire from military life.
To get to his 20 years, Eicher would have to extend his enlistment another year. His fellow Soldiers were trying to convince him to sign up for another six, so Eicher kidded with his wife that he would do it. She gave him a response that he wasn’t expecting: “At least, you finally made up your mind.”
Later that month, the flooding began and Eicher was called to state active duty, where he immediately began running missions to deliver supplies to multiple communities in southeast Kansas, including Augusta and Eureka. The missions included dropping off pallets of water and other supplies for water rescue.
Finishing those missions, he and his team went back to home base in Iola, where they received their next mission to deliver 18 pallets of water to Coffeyville, a town that was preparing for the inevitable flooding if the Verdigris River levee holding should break.
“When we were done with the water, it was about five or six in the afternoon and we got the word to go and start helping with the sand bags and we did that well into the night,” explained Eicher.
After finally getting some rest when other Soldiers came to relieve them at around 3 a.m., Eicher and the rest of the Guardsmen finished helping the community members with the sand bagging late that next afternoon.
The whole experience reminded Eicher that this what he joined the National Guard for and he began to reconsider his decision to retire. After completing his final mission to Valley Falls, he told his commander he would stay in.
“I’d been thinking about it for a while, but just helping others was what made me decide,” Eicher explained. “I was there in the fire station in Valley Falls and something clicked in my mind that said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? You love this! Why are you getting out?”
Eicher was not the only one who felt that way. Spc. Russell O’Neill, 891st Forward Support Company, also realized it was not quite time to let it go.
O’Neill was coming to the end of his first enlistment and had already decided to conclude his service at the end of his contract.
“The first year in the guard I was liking it,” said O’Neill, Lawrence. “But then, after that, it got tedious and I started feeling like I had to go to drill.”
O’Neill felt like he was doing less and less of the job he signed up for to meet many of the other mandatory requirements.
“It continued like that for a while,” O’Neill said, “but then, all of a sudden, we had more hands-on and more out in the field and out in the shop type things. So things started getting better here and there, and then it started becoming more and more enjoyable.”
With three children, O’Neill was really weighing his options on whether it was worth staying in. Then he got a call to go on state active duty to help with the flooding. He wanted to go, but was in the middle of moving into a new apartment.
“I said ‘I am definitely game if I can do it on Tuesday,’” O’Neill explained. “That would be the best time for me because I was still unpacking.”
They said they would call back, but the call never came. Then disaster struck south of Lawrence when a tornado plowed through on its way towards Kansas City.
O’Neill, who works for a landscaping company in Lawrence, said several of the houses he had worked on south of town were damaged. Several of O’Neill’s family and friends who lived in the vicinity of Linwood, Kansas, were affected and had damage to their homes.
That next weekend, O’Neill would get a chance to help. One of the vehicles used to deliver supplies broke down while his unit was drilling. His five and a half years of experience working on those trucks made him the go-to guy to send out and fix the vehicle.
“We had to run to the Alma/Wamego exit off I-70 to the DOT (Department of Transportation) station to repair an LMTV (Light Medium Tactical Vehicle) that had a bad cable to the alternator,” said O’Neill.
While the events were not the only reasons O’Neill decided to stay in, they helped him confirm he needed to continue his service. He also realized the benefits he would get for his children would outweigh the little time he would be away. The biggest reason, however, was the realization he didn’t want to let go of the camaraderie.
“I feel that, with my fellow Soldiers, it is a brotherhood that I haven’t had since high school,” O’Neill said. “The weekend drills, I get to go be around a bunch of guys that I enjoy being around, and I’ve had a lot of them call me throughout my hardships and ask how I’m doing.”
By the end of the June drill, Eicher and O’Neill had reenlisted, standing on pallets of water to be delivered for the flooding.
“When the state active duty stuff comes around and people need your help, that is what we are here for,” Eicher said. “If you are thinking about retiring and you’re thinking about getting out, think about all these things that could happen.
“Who knew that the flooding was going to take place? Nobody, and that is why you joined in the first place.”