Major Radames Ortiz was stationed at Fort Campbell when his home in Puerto Rico was battered first by hurricanes and then earthquakes.
His mother’s home was destroyed and his grandmother’s home also was heavily damaged so he helped out the two ways he could from a distance – by sending money and enrolling in the Home Builders Institute Program that teaches transitioning Soldiers about the construction trade.
“That’s the main reason I’m taking this class,” said Ortiz assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 101st Special Troops Battalion, 101st Airborne Division Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). “I have a house in Puerto Rico, but I don’t know if it’s going to be livable.”
Ortiz knew the free 12-week program would help him eventually. Earlier this month, it gave him an opportunity to help others impacted by disaster much closer to Fort Campbell.
Ortiz and about 15 other students from the HBI Skilled Trades Training Center joined their carpentry instructor, Brandon Dunnam, two days after the March 3 tornados that touched down across Middle Tennessee leaving a wide wake of destruction in Nashville and its surrounding communities.
Armed with little more than a chainsaw, safety gear and the knowledge they have mustered from class and their Army careers, the group set out to help with tornado cleanup any way they could.
“I try to help veterans as it is and I like helping everybody,” Dunnam said. “I felt bad for all the people in Nashville because it’s a terrible thing when a tornado comes through.”
Dunnam found a church posting on Facebook about a group of volunteers helping Crisis Response International and reached out. He and his students attended a morning meeting and were directed where to go.
“They gave us an address and the address was in a neighborhood that wasn’t effected at all,” Dunnam said. “All we had to do is drive around the block and I found the impacted part. They sent us to the wrong address but the right neighborhood.”
Some of the HBI volunteers were better prepared for what they saw than others but most said they still remember feeling shock at the sheer number of homes and businesses that were leveled, caved in, missing roofs or demolished by uprooted trees.
Sergeant First Class Joshua Bezinque, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Abn. Div., thought he knew what to expect when the group arrived.
“I’m from Kansas, so we’ve seen a lot of tornados and I knew what we were about to walk into,” Bezinque said. “It was devastating to see how much damage it did. It hit one home, the next would be perfectly fine and the next, completely destroyed.”
The Soldiers went door-to-door asking who needed help, though many residents were not at their homes because they were uninhabitable. They also offered assistance to those who were outside trying to clean up.
“We were trying to get all the heavy work done,” Bezinque said. “We talked to a lot of them. They asked us where we were from and we said we just came up from Fort Campbell, so they really appreciated our help.”
The volunteer group of Soldiers cut tree branches into parts small enough to carry to the roadside for pickup, filled garbage bags with debris and anything else needed, he said.
Specialist Ronald Graham, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Abn. Div., was saddened by the destruction he saw, yet uplifted by strangers coming together.
“When I woke up I thought it was pretty crazy because I know tornados hit, but to actually see a tornado go through a whole city and demolish so much and cause so much damage, it’s just crazy,” Graham said. “I felt bad for them. It’s sad to watch people struggle.”
Broken glass and trees were everywhere and home after home was covered with huge tarps where roofs were sucked away.
“It’s so cool watching a community come together and help people in need,” Graham said. “It’s something I would do again.”
Later that afternoon, the group went to an 80-acre horse ranch near Opry Mills. Almost all structures were destroyed at the stables that housed dozens of horses, Bezinque said.
The horse stalls were made of concrete and cinder block so they remained but the walls and roofs were blown off, Dunnam said. Despite the damage the horses survived.
A large barn housing mowers and farm equipment collapsed and the Soldiers spent their afternoon cutting it away so the equipment could be removed.
Dunnam said the experience may encourage some of the HBI students to do more volunteer work in the future and it was also good practice doing something they don’t often do.
Although much of their time is spent learning to build things, demolishing is also part of construction and some who may not have had that experience before learned new skills.
Teresa English, Region 1 Career Skills Program, said it was a good opportunity for the HBI students.
“It gave them an opportunity to give back,” English said. “It gave them an opportunity to use the skills they are learning in the class and see it in a real-world situation.”
She is in favor of them taking the trip to help tornado victims in Nashville.
“It just made sense if they could do something to learn, see something in action and do something good and see the skill sets in a real-life disaster situation,” English said. “We were happy to support this good cause.”