From Iraqi sand to sandbags

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 30, 2009 - 10:47 PM

Residents are more than happy to have a military presence in their flood-soaked neighborhoods.

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As Sgt. John Juracek of the Minnesota National Guard kept watch on a north Moorhead neighborhood, resident Craig Mazaur joined him to monitor a dike.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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MOORHEAD, MINN. --

Amid the manicured yards and grand homes lining the Red River's banks in the Moorhead country club neighborhood, a green-camouflaged Humvee crawled through the curving streets Monday.

National Guard Sgt. John Juracek climbed out, his blaze orange life jacket bright against the gray sky and snow flurries. He walked toward a sandbag dike built a week earlier to check for pools of water seeping through and to listen for a whirring pump.

"Looks good," he said after a neighborhood resident ambled up to chat.

It was another stop on Juracek's roaming tour of Moorhead, which has more than 300 of the nearly 500 Minnesota Guard soldiers who have been summoned to 24-hour duty, doing everything from evacuating homeowners to deterring crime to plugging unexpected leaks in the miles of quickly constructed dikes.

It's a welcome military invasion for this flood-weary region.

Juracek, of Ironton, is one of more than 2,000 Guard soldiers from a handful of states, including Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, who have been deployed to the Red River Valley.

"The more help the better, as far as I'm concerned," Country Club neighborhood resident Craig Mazour said, surveying the dike and pumps next to Juracek. "You guys give us a secure feeling."

It's a common sentiment toward Juracek and Specialist Christopher Johnson, of Park Rapids, as they tread atop frozen, slippery dikes or weave their wide vehicle through narrow, snow-packed streets obstructed by sandbags and road-closed signs.

"They are the relief force for our citizens watching the dikes everyday," said Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland. "If you didn't have the Guard, they'd be watching 24 hours a day and have tired eyes. And that's when you can make poor judgments and mistakes."

Voxland also said that the Guard has been good about keeping gawkers out of troubled areas, and even stopped him while he was going to his house, located on the south edge of town.

The mission in the Red River Valley is a world away from Juracek's last deployment, which took him to Iraq for a year in 2005 and required him to work in temperatures above 100 degrees.

Monday afternoon, Juracek hopped out of the Humvee into the early stages of a snow storm. "Being a true Minnesotan, I kind of like winter," he said with a shrug.

Juracek, 25, and Johnson, 27, were on day 10 of their two-week deployment. They've done eight hours of patrol, eight hours of standby and eight hours of sleep each day. In Moorhead, Guard members sleep on cots at the armory or in a college dorm hall, which is being renovated.

They eat at the college cafeteria or in restaurants. Sometimes, depending on the situation, they'll eat MREs from the back of a truck.

Juracek and Johnson have learned that certain spots along the dike are more troublesome than others. Stopping near 6th Avenue and 3rd Street, Juracek checked the water level for a report he'll make later. "It's a lot lower," he said, comparing it with what he'd seen the day before. "Two to 3 inches."

Back in the Humvee, heavy camouflage helmets strapped onto their chins, Juracek and Johnson bounced hard as the wide truck slammed the bumpy pavement.

A pool of icy water sloshed at the end of a street. Resident Paul Duchene was standing nearby and walked up to the Humvee's window. Did he need help? Juracek asked.

No, Duchene said. He was just checking to make sure storm sewer drains were open. So far, everything was under control. Juracek put the Humvee in gear.

"We'll be around if you need anything," he said.

Staff Writer Richard Meryhew contributed to this report. Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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