BRAZOS COUNTY, Texas-- Down flat Texas roads, past acres and acres of farmland, sits the Brazos Valley Expo, an events center in Brazos County Texas. About an hour drive from Houston and three hours from Beaumont, the Expo now serves as a staging area for National Guard battalions, going to or coming from areas affected by Harvey.
KAGS spent twelve hours at the expo, meeting Guardsmen from Arkansas and Texas. The Arkansans, part of a battalion called Task Force Aleutian, were en-route to assist with relief and recovery efforts in Beaumont. The Texans had just returned from performing water rescues and humanitarian work in Houston.
The Expo is a central stopping off point for guardsmen, thousands having spent time at the facility since Harvey hit.
“We've been staged here since Monday,” said Specialist Prentis Grayson of the Arkansas National Guard. “It gave us time to rest and time to work on the vehicles.”
For those heading out into the field, it provides a safe space for much needed rest, down time, and areas to stage and prepare gear. And for those returning home from relief efforts, the Expo serves as a processing center for paperwork and debriefing.
While the building’s staff and owners have been accommodating, even telling us they’re paying for building expenses during the Guard’s stay, the conditions are not exactly home. Arkansas guardsmen laughed telling us that about 400 soldiers used only 4 sinks to brush their teeth before we arrived one morning.
Guardsmen sleep in large conference rooms, getting haircuts in the Expo center lobby, and even playing football in between the lines of humvees that encircle the building's parking lot.
Volunteers from the Brazos Valley bring the guardsmen three hot meals, averaging four to six hundred meals a day, cooked by community members or donated by local businesses.
“They’re giving their time away from their family, the least we can do is feed them, said Shannon Metzer, who began the volunteer efforts when she learned that guardsmen were living at the Expo. “Thats who we are in Texas.”
The gesture has touched the guardsmen, especially those in the Arkansas Guard who didn’t know what to expect from their neighboring state.
“We're here to help you and you guys are here to help us. We just really appreciate it,” said Lt. Colonel Matt Rhees, commander of Task Force Aleutian.
Rhees added that his guardsmen, many of whom left loved ones to come serve in Texas, are happy to be eating good food and proud to be in Texas.
“I was picking my son up from school when I got the call,” Specialist Shanice Mahone of the Arkansas National Guard told us in a soft voice. “If my unit didn’t call me, I would have made my way down here anyway,” she added later.
All of the Guardsmen that we spoke with, whether heading into duty or returning from a deployment, told us they are dedicated to their mission: serving the people of Texas.
“We're Americans. We're going to help out Americans when they're in need. It's what Americans do. It’s what Arkansans do,” said Lt. Colonel Rhees.