Andrew Dys

Region’s citizen-soldiers prep for National Guard’s role helping victims

Almost every day, Timmy Catoe hustles a hard living, processing wood pulp at York County’s Resolute Forest Products.

But that’s not all he does. For a year in 2004 he served in Iraq with the Lancaster unit of the Army National Guard. He missed the birth of a daughter while guarding convoys from bombs.

For a month last year, he worked 18-hour days to fix roads and bridges washed out from flooding.

Thursday he prepared to leave for as long as it takes to help people in South Carolina as Hurricane Matthew approaches.

Catoe, a 36-year-old father and husband, is the face of South Carolina’s resolve that Hurricane Matthew will not leave victims without hope -- even if they lose power or have property damage.

With him are a warehouse worker and a beauty school financial aid officer born in Ecuador and a college student and a store clerk and others. Citizen-soldiers who dropped their lives to help; 53 others already have headed to the coast.

Sgt. First Class Catoe is a platoon leader with the Army National Guard’s Lancaster armory of combat engineers, and he leads 21 younger soldiers who are preparing to head to the coast to do whatever must be done for people they have never met. He has 18 years in the Lancaster guard unit with a year of that in the deserts of Iraq.

“I am out here, just like all the soldiers in my platoon, to serve people,” Catoe said as he and the others readied trucks and bulldozers and more to handle whatever Matthew brings. “The people of South Carolina need us, we go and we do it without hesitation.”

Matthew has been upgraded to a Category 4 storm and is expected to batter the South Carolina coast Friday night into Saturday with rain and potentially deadly storm surge and winds of at least hurricane force -- even if the eye stays offshore.

About 2,000 soldiers from the South Carolina National guard have been activated in the past three days as Gov. Nikki Haley declared a state of emergency before the storm. The guard is playing crucial roles in assisting law enforcement in evacuations, shelters, traffic, and putting equipment and men in place to deal with the potential of widespread property damage when the storm hits.

Lancaster’s 100-plus soldiers, part of the 178th combat engineers based in Rock Hill with armories in Chester and Fort Mill, sent dozens of soldiers prepared for long days and even weeks at the coast if needed.

Many in the unit were deployed for almost a month last year in the state’s historic floods. Spc. Tristan Shirley, 19, a full time college student and heavy equipment operator, volunteered for that mission and said she is itching to head to the coast to help others even if it means sleeping in a tent for a month.

“Jesus said love thy neighbor as thyself,” Shirley said. “That means everybody you can help, you help them. When you put someone else’s life ahead of yours, you have done something in your life. This is what being an American is all about.”

Spc. Diego Zumba, 26, who runs the financial aid office for a school in his regular job, said he joined the guard years ago for one reason: “To be selfless.”

Helping people in flooding, to protect them and repair damage, that is what being an American and a soldier is all about, Zumba said.

“What this job is is helping people and I am ready to go do that for everyone in my state,” Zumba said.

Zumba proudly wears his uniform with the American Flag on it.

For newer recruit soldiers such as Jaquavious Markell Moore, 22, who works in a warehouse and Robert Wright, 20, who works for a store, the guard is a chance to serve their community and state and country at a time when they are needed.

It is the noncommissioned officers, “noncoms” such as Timmy Catoe, who will lead the mission at the coast. That means expecting guardsmen to do whatever is asked, and then some. Because if the hurricane brings destruction, or even damage, some people will need them to function and maybe even survive.

Catoe was asked how long the Hurricane Matthew mission will be.

“As long as it takes to help every person we can,.” he said.