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Guard returns from Dade

Members of Clearwater's Florida National Guard company summarize their visit to hurricane-ravaged Dade County in sure, military style.

"FILO: First In, Last Out," said Sgt. Arlene Frisk, clerk for Company A of the 53rd Support Battalion. "That's what we were."

The company's 40 or so trucks returned to Clearwater on Monday after six weeks of 18- to 20-hour workdays in Dade County. For the soldiers' families, their time apart seemed longer.

"To us, the six weeks was like a year," said Clare Young, whose husband, Spec. 4 David Young, works with the Guard as a truck driver.

Although the company is based in Clearwater, members come from as far as New Port Richey, Sarasota, Land O'Lakes and Orlando. The group specializes in transportation, fueling and vehicle maintenance.

Their job was to create the support network that brought hundreds of tons of food to hurricane-damaged Homestead and Florida City.

The Florida Army National Guard's Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 53rd Support Battalion, returned to St. Petersburg on Tuesday. The unit was called to state active duty Aug. 24. This group specialized in providing security and assistance to residents in south Dade County.

In addition to their South Florida souvenirs, the Clearwater Guard members say they brought with them memories of work they will never forget.

"We saw a family of four sitting at a dining room table with a candle," said Staff Sgt. David Ostrander. "They had no roof over their heads, but they were having dinner. They had nothing. But it was their property and they were going to keep having dinner.

"It was really heartbreaking to see, but you had to keep doing your job."

And while they were gone Guard families organized a support group and established an office in Tampa, said Pam Gilliland, wife of the company's commander, Thadeus Gilliland.

"We were on the phones from 10 in the morning until 11 at night sometimes, answering people's questions about what was going on (in Miami)," Mrs. Gilliland said.

The support group also put together care package from community donations and sent them down with military supplies, she said.

"The Guard is family," Mrs. Gilliland.

Monday's arrival was special to David and Clare Young because they weren't sure David would be back in time to celebrate their son Gabriel's third birthday Saturday.

"Daddy made it home for his birthday," Clare Young said, patting her son's head as she hugged her husband. Nearby, the couple's 8-year-old daughter, Danielle, waved a homemade American flag and hid behind her father's legs.

In the six weeks since Young was called into active duty, the family had spent only one day together. That made for some hefty long-distance telephone bills.

"The kids liked to stay up late until he called," Clare Young said. "To them it seemed like he was never coming home."

The approximately 160 members of Company A left Clearwater on Aug. 24, the day Hurricane Andrew made landfall in Dade County. They had a half-hour's notice, and their work began the next morning.

"We hit the ground running," Ostrander said.

Sgt. Henry Gomez of St. Petersburg started his South Florida work like many of Andrew's victims _ with just the clothes on his back.

During the drive to Dade County, Gomez's bag of clothes and supplies fell off the truck. Gomez assumed that another truck would pick it up. When he got to Miami, it was not to be found, said Nancy Gomez, Henry's wife.

"We got this call, "Can you send me some underwear?'

" Nancy Gomez said.

Twenty-hour days were common for Ostrander, who coordinated the distribution of food from the Opa-Locka Airport. He and his troops moved 136,000 meals and Red Cross packages in about six hours the first day.

Despite their long stay, many members of Company A found it difficult to put the hurricane's devastation into words.

"You've got to see it to believe it," said Sgt. Kenneth McTier. "If you look at the pictures from Pinellas Park and then imagine that stretched over more than 30 miles, then you've got an idea."

McTier may have gotten the best view of Andrew's swath of destruction when he took a helicopter ride over Miami area.

"There was damage as far as you could see," McTier said. "Man, I wish I had my camera. All the trees are leaning one direction."

When the company arrived, it made camp at a fairground, Frisk said.

"We had people coming up to us asking for food and water and anything they could get," she said. When the company packed up to leave six weeks later, some residents still were reluctant to say goodbye.

Ostrander said the work in Dade was a cooperative effort between the military and civilians. Two truck drivers, for example, donated a week of their time and fuel to transport food to Homestead.

"We told them that we had nothing to offer them," he said. "They said they didn't want anything in return, they were just doing it to help the people down there."