By Sgt. 1st Class Darren D. Heusel
Joint Force Headquarters Public Affairs
The military prides itself in taking care of families of deployed Servicemembers, whether it’s mowing the lawn, fixing a leaky faucet, looking after the children so mom or dad can have some well-deserved time off, or whatever the case might be.
A group of Oklahoma Army National Guardsmen, added coming to the aid of a deployed spouse in the wake of a tornado to the list.
Sgt. Jonathan Manning, who is serving a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan with the 1245th Transportation Company, 90th Troop Command, Oklahoma Army National Guard, recently found himself in a hopeless situation when the duplex his wife, Victoria, rented just three weeks ago was damaged by the powerful May 20 twister that destroyed hundreds of homes and business, causing an estimated $2 billion in damage and claiming 24 lives, including 10 children.
But thanks to several members of Manning’s parent company, the 1345th Transportation Company, several friends and other Guard members, Victoria is in good hands. She also has a better understanding of what the Guard family is all about.
“We had been dating for a while and when he got his deployment notice, we had discussed whether we should get married before, or after the deployment,” Victoria said. “That’s when he said to me one of the most romantic things I’ve ever heard and that’s, ‘When I’m gone, I want to make sure you’re taken care of no matter what happens.’
“Most of that I assumed to mean if he gets killed overseas, that his wife would be taken care of…I really understand what that means now,” Victoria added.
The couple was married in August and Jonathan deployed in January. Since then, Victoria’s extended Guard family has grown exponentially.
A team of about 25-30 volunteers met up on the Saturday morning to help Victoria and other Soldiers pick up the pieces after the powerful tornado rolled through the Moore area. For the dozen or so volunteers who showed up to help Victoria, their mission of loading up all of her belongings and providing some basic cleanup was complete less than an hour later, leaving her with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude.
“After all this happened, the next day I’m getting calls from colonels and captains and majors…people were just jumping to help,” Victoria said. “I was getting calls from Jonathan’s friends, who I haven’t seen since the wedding wanting to help me because most of them are in the National Guard and the National Guard is like a family and they take care of family.”
“This has been a crazy, but not crazy experience…it’s been crazy how stress free this has been,” she said. “When I talk to my husband on the phone, he asks me if I’m okay or if I need anything and I’m like honestly I’m fine. Everyone’s been taking care of me. I feel blessed that I have anything to pack.”
Victoria said when people from the National Guard started calling her and asking her what she needed, she told them she just needed to get her stuff safe.
“They’re like ‘alright, we’ll pay for a U-Haul, we’ll get you where you need to go, we’ll pay for a storage unit, whatever you need,” she said. “But, Jonathan’s best friend and former roommate is here and is letting us store stuff in his house.
“That way, we don’t have to pay for a storage unit so that money can go to someone else who needs it. Because I’m in the National Guard family, there’s just a lot of people who are here for me.”
Fortunately, the Manning home received minor damage compared to the other homes in her neighborhood and especially those located just a block north, where the tornado demolished everything in its path including Briarwood and Plaza Towers Elementary Schools.
Right as the workers arrived at the Manning residence, the deployed husband texted his wife to say hello.
“I had texted him this morning to say, “Good morning. I love you and that I’m getting ready to head out to the house to meet everyone who is going to help me,” she said. “He knows everything that’s going on. He said, ‘Tell everyone I said hi and that I really appreciate them helping you and that I love you and will check in on you later.’”
Victoria is an eighth-grade English teacher at Santa Fe South Middle School, located just a few miles from where most of the destruction occurred. She said when the tornado was approaching, she was actually watching the live news feed on her phone while she and her fellow teachers were trying to make sure all their kids were safe.
“At one point, the tornado was around Santa Fe and it could have either gone north or east,” Victoria said. “If it had gone north, it would have hit the school, but it went east and hit my house. In a way, I’m kind of glad it went more east, because all of my students and co-workers are okay.
“For a long time, I didn’t think I had a house at all, so I went to stay with my friend, Simone, and she offered to drive down with me.”
Victoria said when she and her friend approached the area from the north side, which was where most of the destruction was, they walked past people who were standing over what was left of their homes, digging through piles of their belongings, so she assumed the worst.
“We came around the corner and I saw that there were some houses standing and that’s when I first felt that spark of hope, that maybe I still have something left,” Victoria said. “I rounded the corner and saw that the whole house was here.”
Victoria said when she entered her home, “everything was perfect.”
“The frames and all the pictures were still hanging on the walls and everything was in place,” she said. “I felt very blessed. It was a very surreal moment, but I felt very blessed that I had anything left. It’s crazy because I’ve never experienced a tornado before and I just figured if everything’s gone, it’s just gone.
“You look on the other side of the street and none of the homes have windows, their roofs are gone, and on my street where my duplex happens to be, it’s completely fine except for one broken window and a two-by-four coming through the wall of my bedroom. In the middle of the wall is a mirror that I hung and it’s still there.”
Victoria is originally from Anchorage, Alaska, and she’s experienced earthquakes before, but never a tornado.
“I’ve lived here for about 10 years,” she said. “I went to Oklahoma Christian University and stayed here after I graduated, so this is the first experience I’ve ever had with a tornado.”
Capt. Ronnie Sides, commander of the 1345th Transportation Company, Manning’s parent unit, said about 25-30 volunteers pitched in to help with the cleanup, including one member from the company’s Family Readiness Group, her brother, and a former Minnesota Guardsman and Afghanistan war vet, who drove all the way to Oklahoma with a truck full of supplies.
“This is what it’s about, helping each other out,” Sides said. “Soon after this happened, I sent out an e-mail to all my troops and told them to be ready. But, the (45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Oklahoma Army National Guard) soon took over the quick reaction force mission and things kind of quieted down.”
A day later, Sides said he started getting text messages and e-mails from people wanting to help out. At that point, he said, he thought there was a potential his unit would get called up to state active duty, because “as a Guard member, that’s what you do.”
“We never got the call, so we got some volunteers together to help our folks first and then help out with others,” Sides said. “We’ve even got some members in Bethel Acres, Newalla, Shawnee and some of the other areas affected.”
Maj. Steven Stanford, executive officer for the 345th Combat Support Battalion, Manning’s higher headquarters, said the team assembled at 8 a.m. in Norman and met Victoria at 9 a.m. in Moore, adding, “Everything went according to plan.”
“I rented a U-Haul the night before,” Standford said. “We met this morning and knocked it out in about an hour. We boarded up windows and generally just helped to clean up. This is the culmination of a lot of hard work.”
Stanford said he started talking to Soldiers affected by the tornado within the first 24 hours and said some were in shock and didn’t know what they needed.
“Some of them were even too proud to ask for help, so we came together and assembled this team to make it happen,” he said. “We feel really good about what these Soldiers are doing because they’re doing it on their own.”
One of the volunteers, 1st Lt. Roderic Jones, a platoon leader with the 1345th Transportation Company, had his house completely destroyed by the tornado. He lived about 200 yards west of Plaza Towers Elementary School, yet still volunteered to help with the Manning cleanup effort.
“I knew other people needed help and I can’t stay idle,” Jones said. “I had already taken care of my business with insurance claims and living arrangements so I could come out here and help. This feels awesome. It’s a good feeling. It’s why a lot of people join the Guard. It’s selfless service.”
Manning’s best friend and former roommate, Sgt. Josh Dolezal, a member of Company F, 700th Support Battalion out of Sand Springs, Okla., also came to the aid of Victoria.
After the tornado rolled through, Dolezal said Manning got in touch with him and asked if he would check on Victoria.
“He tagged all of us on Facebook, basically all of us who are in the military,” Dolezal said. “Jonathan used to live with me, so I’ve got a spare bedroom and I offered to store all their stuff so they don’t have to rent a storage unit.
“Vicki told me about meeting some members of his unit and I felt obligated to help out since I’ve known Jonathan for so long.”
Simone Chamlee, Victoria’s best friend since college, was the first person Victoria called after the tornado touched down.
“She said, ‘hey, I might not have a place to stay,’ so I said come over,” Chamlee said. “I just know when Jonathan gets back, the reunion is going to be more special, having gone through all this. It’s going to be more comforting…It’s hard to experience something like this without your significant other being by your side.”
Chamlee went on to say her friend has been extremely strong through the entire ordeal, adding, “That’s how a military spouse has to be.”
“But the Guard family has really stepped up and helped her through all of this,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing.
Victoria said her husband had been in the Guard for a couple years before they met. She said Manning joined the Guard to feel like he was doing something important with his life.
“He cares about people, he cares about the country and he wants to feel like he’s doing something important to help the people in his life,” she said. “I know it’s tearing him up inside that he can’t be here, but it means a lot to him that the National Guard is here for me.”
I told him, “I feel like a piece of you is here with me because they are here with me,” Victoria said.