Guard Dike Patrolling New Job for Some, Old Hat for Others

  • Published
  • By By Sgt. 1st Class David Dodds
  • NDNG Public Affairs
Staff Sgt. Steven Kennedy has lived in West Virginia, Georgia and Nevada, but it wasn't until he moved to North Dakota that he got to see his first flood.

And it wasn't long after he arrived that he was involved in his first flood fight.

Kennedy, an Airman with the North Dakota National Guard's 219th Security Forces Squadron in Minot, N.D., moved his family from Nevada less than a year ago in search of a stable job and a better life for his wife and two daughters.

This week, he is on flood duty in Fargo working as a dike patroller on the emergency dikes that are containing the swollen Red River.

He's gotten a quick education from more seasoned vets on the differences between a "crack" and a "leak" and a "breach." There is a difference, he assures.

"It's a new experience for me; I've had a lot to learn," Kennedy said. "I thought it would be simple, but it's turned out to be a lot more complex and diverse than I expected."

Kennedy was born in Clarksburg, W. Va., and grew up in Warner Robins, Ga. He spent some time in the Air Force Reserves at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, before moving on to the Nevada Air National Guard and Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas.

He worked as a civilian at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Spring, Nev., but job insecurities spurred him to seek an Active Guard and Reserve, or AGR, position and a more promising life for his family in Minot, N.D.

None of his previous homes had any issues with flooding, he said.

Kennedy said he knows the history of flooding in the Red River Valley but it's another thing to see the devastation up close and personal.

"When you're walking, you see kids' swing sets, sheds and gazebos all under water," he said. "You can obviously tell that something's not right and it's not supposed to be that way."

Kennedy is among nearly 500 North Dakota National Guard Airmen and Soldiers who are on flood-response duty in the state. Most of the Guard personnel are in eastern North Dakota in and around Fargo.

There are about 85 Guardsmen in Fargo performing 24/7 dike patrols on 21 sections of emergency levees along the Red River. Other missions are to run traffic control points and to participate in quick reaction force teams, which are on standby until they are needed to react on a moment's notice.

Airman 1st Class Kathleen Stenger, with the 219th Security Forces in Minot, also is on her first year of flood duty. She joined the Guard a year ago.

"It's fun, I guess, but you kind of feel sorry for the people whose homes are affected," Stenger said. "It makes you want to help then even more and do what you can."

The dike patrollers work in two-person teams on 12-hour shifts. Stenger and her patrolling partner, Erik Hoff, with the 119th Wing in Fargo, take the day shift.

Hoff, a native of Detroit Lakes, Minn., has volunteered to fight floods in Fargo for three years in a row now. He's putting the knowledge he's used in past years to good use.

On Saturday morning, about three hours into their shift, Hoff and Stenger spotted a leak forming in the sandbag dike in one of the backyards they were patrolling. They immediately notified the proper authorities with the city and the leak was quickly stopped.

"To me, the nice thing about living up in this part of the country is that everyone helps everyone else out," Hoff said. "Instead of getting agitated, everyone works together to build a real sense of community.

"It's neighbors helping neighbors, that's what keeps bringing me back."

Hoff and Stenger patrol a huge section in south Fargo, from the west side of the Fargo Country Club down to 32nd Avenue South and then down River Drive to 52nd Avenue South.

Stenger, a native of Dent, Minn., said it takes them about three hours to walk down and back to their starting point.

She said she's in the flood fight for the long haul.

"How ever long they need me, I'll be here," she said.

Master Sgt. Luke Gardiner, from Bismarck, N.D., is an area supervisor for nine dike-patrolling and traffic-control teams on the south side of Fargo. His job is to make sure the teams have all the equipment they need to do their jobs. He also ensures that they are getting adequate breaks, food and something to drink.

Gardiner was involved in the 2009 flood fight in Fargo and he works as a civilian police officer in Fargo, experiences that he uses in his supervisory role out on the dike lines.

During a 12-hour shift, Gardiner said he logs about 250 miles, hitting all of the points in his sector and making sure his workers are well cared for.

"They are all really awesome people," Gardiner said. "They don't complain even though it's a long, drawn out shift and can get kind of boring. No one gripes at all; that's what is really cool."

Kennedy, the new North Dakotan and flood-fighting novice, is one of those dedicated non-complainers that Gardiner takes care of.

Kennedy said he has good reason to be serving his new home state on flood duty.

"I left Las Vegas looking for a better life for my family in North Dakota, a better all around environment and a better education system for my kids," he said. "For me, this is my chance to give back to North Dakota for all that is has given me."