In Emergency, Iowa Turns To National Guard Retirees

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Residents boat down the street outside their home on floodwaters from the South Skunk River.

Residents boat down the street outside their home on Aug. 11 as the South Skunk River floods parts of Colfax, Iowa. Steve Pope/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Steve Pope/AP

Stretched thin by overseas deployments, Iowa's National Guard is asking retirees to help fulfill one of its core missions: providing assistance during natural disasters at home.

States often send their National Guard troops to manage rescue and relief efforts when disaster strikes. But with some 40,000 National Guard members either in Afghanistan or on their way, there are far fewer troops to lend a hand.

Retired Sgt. Maj. Lowell Tiedt is among those who have answered Iowa's call for help.

On a recent day, Tiedt watched a foot of water rolling over Highway 117 — the major road into the central Iowa town of Colfax. Floodwaters from the Skunk River buckled the highway, swallowed up cars and cornfields, and forced 300 people from their homes.

"Four or five days ago, the water was much higher," Tiedt says, "but it is still a situation you still have to watch."

A former schoolteacher, Tiedt is now a hobby farmer who oversees 4-H cattle shows at the state fair. But this August, Tiedt is also serving as emergency awareness contact for the Iowa National Guard. It's a volunteer gig that only pays if he's activated during an emergency.

Just three weeks after training, Tiedt was sent to evaluate a dam break in Lake Delhi. "We thought this was going to be something that was useful," Tiedt says, "but we didn't realize it was going to be this useful this quick."

His job is to assess the damage and recommend if and how the Guard should respond. So far this year, Iowa has not deployed Guard troops or equipment to assist with the flooding. That's in sharp contrast to 2008, when 4,000 went into 24 waterlogged communities.

Providing that same level of support in the next 12 months will be difficult, as the Iowa National Guard faces its largest single unit call-up since World War II.

Polk County Emergency Management Coordinator A.J. Mumm says local disaster agencies are keenly aware of their absence.

"The National Guard provides a number of things in our local communities besides just disaster work," Mumm says, "but certainly from our perspective, that's when we need them the most. And you have to sit up and take notice of those numbers being someplace else."

So far, 70 retired Guard members have volunteered for Iowa's new program. First Sgt. Randy Rice, of the Kansas National Guard, predicts his colleagues in Iowa won't have any trouble. Kansas runs a similar program; it has recruited 400 retirees.

"They always kind of want to come back, and they still want to feel a part of being in the National Guard," Rice says. "And if they become a scout, that helps them still be a part of the National Guard in their state, and so I think it's very rewarding for them."

And, Rice says, many of the service members have old friends in the Guard. "So sometimes it becomes quite a reunion when we have training."

Rice says he's not sure why more states haven't copied the program, but he suspects the current round of deployments will change that.

Back in Colfax, Tiedt says age has its advantages. Many of the retirees have served in Iraq, Kuwait, Granada and Vietnam. And while Tiedt was never deployed overseas, he has responded to lots of tornadoes and floods.

"With the experience I've had, with the many years, you've been put in different situations, and at this point, you need leadership," Tiedt says.

Tanned, fit and trim at 61, Tiedt could still pass the Guard's physical fitness test today. But the program's leaders joke that the best part of volunteering is that there's no weigh-in — and no running.

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