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National Guard from Clearwater return after six weeks in Dade

Members of this city'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 work days 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.

The company's 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."

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.

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."

Ostrander said he and his troops at first found it difficult to believe fellow soldiers' stories of the damage.

"My people went right into the hard hit areas," he said. "When they came back they had these tales about the damage they saw. We didn't believe them until we were able to get in there ourselves and see it."

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.

"They didn't want us to leave," Fisk said.

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."

Business owners were equally friendly to the Guard, Frisk said.

"They wouldn't take money," she said. "(Pizza shops) would chase you down and dump a dozen pizzas into your truck."

For Pinellas and Hillsborough County residents, the company's work also may have been a good investment. If a hurricane were to strike the Tampa Bay area, Ostrander said the local Guard has learned how to coordinate the aftermath.

"We're ready for it now, we know exactly what to do," he said.