In high water, Missouri Guardsmen rise to meet the challenge

Tuesday, April 1, 2008
(Photo by John Quin) Spc. Terrell McCollough, of the Missouri Army National Guard, holds infant Lillian Poneer. The infant and her mother had been stranded for an hour and a half after their car broke down outside Piedmont.

PIEDMONT, Mo. - The rain had stopped and the water was beginning to recede, but Missouri National Guardsmen remained in town to help citizens in and around Piedmont after a devastating flood.

“This morning, five of our Soldiers saved a group of kids and their grandmother,” said 1st Sgt. Jeff Pennington, the non commissioned officer in charge. “Now, we’re working getting food and water to people who need it and assisting the highway patrol with rescues.”

Pennington’s Soldiers, drawn from the Missouri Guard’s 205th Military Police battalion and the 1137th Military Police Company, deployed to Piedmont after the St. Francis River, a tributary of the Mississippi, overflowed its banks.

To get there, the Guardsmen had to travel through some of the worst areas of flooding. Even the street outside their Poplar Bluff armory was covered in a foot and a half of water, said Sgt. Michael Medlock. Once out of Poplar Bluff, the highway leading to Piedmont wasn’t much better.

When they arrived in town, the situation was worse than they’d expected.

“In some places, the river was above the houses by a good foot, foot and a half,” Medlock said.

During their first night in town, the Guardsmen conducted reconnaissance and search and rescue missions in the nearby communities of Leeper and Mill Spring in Wayne County. The next day, they helped unload supplies and conducted health and wellness checks in and around Piedmont, Pennington said.

Around noon, Missouri Highway Patrolmen Cpl. Russ Sargent and Trooper James Wilson received a call from a trailer park south of town. Their patrol cars couldn’t handle the muddy conditions, so they asked the Guard for help.

Pennington sent Sgt. Joshua Link, Spc. Terrell McCollough, Spc. Andres Mendez and Spc. William Adams to support the patrolmen. The six men loaded into two Humvees and headed south. After a 20 minute drive over massive potholes and through dirty water over three feet deep in places, the group arrived at the source of the call only to find out it had been a false alarm.

Rather than returning to their command post, they decided to see if anyone else in the area needed help.

It didn’t take long.

As the two Humvees made their way along a closed section of Highway 34, they saw a car stopped in the distance. Link’s truck took the lead as they made their way through the flooded highway. The Humvees slogged through the muddy water to rescue the people stranded on the other side. Link pulled his Humvee even with the group, so McCollough could ask how the Guardsmen could help.

The stranded motorists - Robert Arment, Maria Poneer and Poneer’s infant daughter Lillian - had attempted to cross the flooded stretch of highway in their Pontiac Sunfire. Just when they thought they’d made it, the car stalled on the other side.

“We made it across, but then the car wouldn’t start again,” Poneer said. “We’ve been stuck here for about an hour and a half.”

The Guardsmen and patrolmen pushed Arment’s car to a small lot on the side of the road and offered the stranded citizens a ride home. Once inside the Humvee, Link turned to make sure baby Lillian was secure.

“I’ll make it as smooth as I can, but it can be a rough ride,” Link said. “You’re going to want to hold on to her.”

The drive back to Poneer’s home took around 15 minutes, but Link managed to drive carefully enough that Lillian nodded off in her car seat during the ride.

“It sure beats going to class,” McCollough said as he gently lifted Lillian from the Humvee and handed her back to her mother. In civilian life, McCollough is a full-time student studying civil engineering at Arkansas State University.

“That’s right,” Link said. “He only rescues babies on the side.”

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