New York National Guard troops went more than a week without showering while doing humanitarian relief work after superstorm Sandy. Many subsisted for days on ready-to-eat Army chow.
"For some of the guys, this could be therapeutic," said Guard Capt. Jason Brandle, 34, of Shirley, as soldiers went door-to-door last week along a street in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn, searching for residents whose storm-damaged homes were still without heat.
"You're helping out neighbors and friends," said Brandle. "And doing good things gives you good feelings. So they might have mixed emotions about Iraq or Afghanistan, but this brings purely positive feelings."
The war effort that brought U.S. troops to Afghanistan is winding down and National Guard soldiers are returning to the Guard's traditional mission: responding to major emergencies and natural disasters at home.
After 9/11, the Guard evolved from a strategic reserve that saw only limited combat to an operational reserve whose troops faced live fire during multiple deployments.
Nearly three months after Sandy hit in late October, more than 250 National Guard troops remain on Sandy duty, according to Guard officials in Albany. They're helping local officials across the region locate damaged homes and people in need.
On most mornings, dozens of Guard troops convoy from Floyd Bennett Airfield in Brooklyn in green Humvees, bound for shoreline neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.
Troops who once carried assault rifles now go door-to-door with tablet computers. Using custom-engineered software, they fill out questionnaires, noting which homes lack electricity or heat, or have the potential of dangerous mold. They offer blankets, warm clothing and bottled water.
The data are forwarded to New York City's Office of Emergency Management, which can help arrange for contractors to address the damage, Brandle said.
Brandle parked in front of a home in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn last week where the front door stood open despite the day's 42-degree chill. There was no heat or electricity in the house. An AmeriCorps volunteer had informed the Guard that the family could use the electric blankets Guard members were distributing. But after talking with a woman who came to the door, it became apparent she was confused about the blankets.
"She thought we have battery-powered electric blankets," Brandle said. "I left it with her anyway."
The daily tasks and working conditions are far different from what the nearly 9,000 New York National Guard troops who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan since 9/11 encountered in those countries.
Soldiers working out of Floyd Bennett Field recounted surviving rocket attacks, roadside bombings or small-arms fire.
They said the worst they have encountered in storm damaged neighborhoods has been the occasional mistrustful resident.
"It actually feels good that we are helping people here," said Spc. Errol Ximines, 30, of Coram. "It brings a smile to their faces and brings them hope. It's awesome."
Ximines said he served with the Guard's 145th Maintenance Company near the southern Iraq city of Diwaniyah in 2005-06. Convoys he rode with there zoomed through the streets to avoid roadside bombs. Although children often pressed close with hopes of receiving bottled water or treats, adults often regarded them with cold disdain.
The ability to help people in the United States is frequently cited by troops on Sandy duty as a reason they joined the Guard.
Ximines enlisted in January 2001, thinking his duties would mostly involve weekend drills and the occasional major storm. Brandle enlisted that August.
Then 9/11 happened.
"One of the reasons I got in the Guard is the homeland mission," Brandle said. "Honestly, it sounds corny, but I've always been a bit of a Boy Scout. I've always enjoyed helping people. I hold doors for old ladies."