CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – The men and women serving at Florida National Guard headquarters are thousands of the state’s neighbors, co-workers and fellow citizens.
In the wake of Hurricane Irma, this group is providing support across Florida. The Guard’s emergency operations headquarters is at Camp Blanding in Clay County.
“Our main job here is to help the citizens of (the) state,” Sgt. 1st Class Rodney Watson said. “I mean, I'm a citizen of the state of Florida. So all we're doing is helping our brothers and sisters inside the state.”
Watson lives in St. Augustine. One of his commanding officers is from St. Johns County. His colleagues hail from across the Sunshine State.
Each of them is proud to participate in the mission of protecting and helping Floridians after Irma.
News4Jax spoke with senior leaders, soldiers and airmen at the Joint Task Force operations center at Camp Blanding. They organize and coordinate the efforts of all branches of military, in supporting the state’s response and recovery.
Brig. Gen. Raphael Ribas and Col. John Pelleriti make sure the right equipment and personnel are in the right spot at the right time.
“Guardsman and three first responders set up a shelter in Collier County that (serves) 5,000 Florida citizens,” Pelleriti said. “They got it set up, they kept calm and order throughout the night and protected those citizens. So, those things are tough, but they're also very rewarding.”
Added Ribas, “It's not just providing the food and water, but getting it to where it needs to go. So, we're moving that kind of stuff. I would imagine many of our citizens (are) seeing Army trucks moving north and south all over the state of Florida, and that's exactly what they're doing.”
One Red Cross volunteer said she saw guardsmen providing a more personal touch of support in the middle of the hurricane: holding and rocking crying babies.
When asked how that makes him feel, Ribas answered, “You know, it makes me feel great. … The fact that they were doing something like that doesn't surprise me at all, because again, we have some great Floridians in our ranks.”
When asked about the hardest element to serving the state, Pelleriti said, it's absolutely leaving their families.
"We have a soldier here working the hurricane. His wife is packing up the family on a ladder ceiling window. She fell off the ladder, hurt her ankle extremely bad. So she got up, went inside, finished packing up, securing the valuables and the kids. (She) got the kids up in the middle of the night, picked up a 90-year-old grandparent, her mother, her brother and road 13 hours to Atlanta with an ankle the size of grapefruit in stop-and-go traffic," Pelleriti said. "I can never repay my wife because that's who was doing that and that story you can multiply thousands of times for every soldier, airman, ever service member doing this there are similar stories 5113 they never get to be on TV they never get Awards they never get promotions. The only way we can do this is when they're doing that 5124 and they're really the key to this.”>
Pelleriti wanted to thank his wife, Tiffanie, and his children -- 14-year-old Kai, 12-year-old Bryce and 10-year-old Gage.
Thank you to all the families keeping it together while their loved ones serve the state in the National Guard.