BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - By Jessica Bowman – email
BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Starting this week, soldiers playing critical roles in the oil spill response will be heading home. The National Guard is removing about 75 percent of its soldiers from oil spill response operations. Members of the National Guard said this reduction matches the response that is now needed.
Mississippi National Guard Colonel Lee Smithson said a plan was implemented early June on how to remove soldiers activated to help with the Deepwater Horizon spill. Now that plan has turned into reality. Although some soldiers will be relieved of their duties, others will remain until Governor Barbour says the National Guard is fully released.
"It's just a right sizing plan," Col. Lee Smithson said. "We've gone from approximately 300 troops down to about 75 come the 13th of August.
Commander of Joint Task Force Vigilant Horizon Colonel Lee Smithson said the next step is determining who will go home first.
"First, we look for volunteers who are ready to go back to work. Whose employers are letting them come back to work a little bit early and then we look at the mission critical requirements they are doing and then just develop a process to send them home on the needs of the mission requirements," said Col. Smithson.
Although the number of men and women will decrease, their 350 air missions over the Mississippi Sound to assess the oil will continue.
"We'll have our aviation assets. We'll leave two helicopters here with crews to fly at the discretion of DMR and MDEQ."
Col. Smithson said this is the first mission where soldiers have actually been staged on the Vessels of Opportunity to help with the direct clean up.
"We'll leave a small section of VoO riders to assist the VoO in locating oil and then getting any of it cleaned up that they find in the Sound."
A small command and control center will also remain.
Colonel Smithson said one of the biggest roles the Guard played was taking pictures day and night, which helped find the oil. Then they were able to direct larger Coast Guard skimmers out to exact locations which, he said, prevented much of the oil from washing ashore.