Soldiers become police, rescuers, escorts

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By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / June 3, 2011

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SPRINGFIELD — Captain Dustin Walker stood before 20 soldiers from the Massachusetts Army National Guard yesterday, a no-nonsense tone in his voice, and briefed them on the mission ahead.

“It’s a long day,’’ Walker said. “This is where we can make mistakes. If you guys have an issue, bad news doesn’t get any better with time.’’

Five hundred National Guard soldiers and airmen were on the ground in the area, and another 500 were expected soon as safety and military officials began to gauge the scope of a storm that cut a swath through neighborhoods, woods, and the city center on Wednesday.

The Guard’s role is to assess the damage, help clear mountains of debris, keep the peace, and perform house-to-house health and welfare checks if needed.

The soldiers, many of whom have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, also escorted and drove staff from state and federal emergency management agencies to gauge the destruction. “It’s pretty bad,’’ said Staff Sergeant Ryan Taylor of Lowell, 34.

Some Guardsmen stood near Main Street in downtown Springfield, where jagged shards of metal sheeting had been thrown and twisted around the bent frames of traffic lights.

Springfield police, who helped maintain order downtown, reported scattered looting of jewelry, scrap metal, and television sets from damaged businesses. Several arrests had been made earlier yesterday.

Uniformed and undercover police planned to patrol the area into the night.

“After night comes, you’re going to see crews of guys trying to loot,’’ said police Sergeant Robert Tardiff. “It’s going to be difficult.’’

Police said there were some reports of looting late last night but no arrests.

Matt Mutti, an Air National Guard major who was raised in Springfield, looked in disbelief at the shattered remnants of neighborhoods that he knew well.

“You almost can’t navigate based on your old references, because they aren’t there,’’ Mutti said, shaking his head as he drove through the battered East Forest Park area. “There’s a place with normalcy, and then there’s just chaos.’’

The Guard knows that its job here will last for at least several days as the scale of the damage is measured.

There are other missions, too, such as bringing blankets and toys to shelters in the area.

Captain Chris Furlong, commander of the 379th Engineer Company, helped unload chainsaws at the National Guard armory here yesterday. His unit returned from a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan in February.

“This is what we do,’’ said Furlong, 33, of Dalton. ’’That’s why we joined the Army, for the opportunity to be there for our community.’’

MacQuarrie can be reached at