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JCSE on the ground in hurricane disaster areas
MacDill personnel handling communications for Katrina task force

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer
Courtesy photo

Army Lt. General Russel Honore, head of the Hurricane Katrina Task Force, gets assistance from Army Sergeant Michael Christopherson, JCSE, on use of a portable satellite communications system.

The next job for the members of MacDill's 2nd Joint Communications Support Element was supposed to be in a dry desert somewhere overseas. Instead they are serving below sea level, surrounded by murky waters, rubble and the rest of the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi.

About 100 JCSE personnel are deployed to 10 strategic locations in the region, setting up and maintaining communications systems, including the personal tactical satellite system used by Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of the joint task force participating in the rescue and recovery operation.

The effort is fluid and ever-changing, said Lt. Col. Ken Gaines, deputy commander of JCSE. About the only thing certain for the members of the 2nd JCSE is uncertainty, as they are tasked to move about the region, setting up the communications networks that will keep officials in touch as the operation moves forward.

Primary communications bases now are at the New Orleans Superdome, Camp Shelby, Mississippi and Baton Rouge, said Colonel Gaines. The remaining communications stations are pretty much mobile and subject to move from day to day.

An invaluable tool is a brand new unit called a SwiftLink made by T.C.S. A small electronic black box, the device is being deployed for the first time by JCSE. It plugs into the portable tactical satellite systems and provided a link allowing full security and non-secure communications, voice and data as well as Internet all via Internet Protocol. One of the devices follows General Honore wherever he goes and has proven invaluable in helping him maintain command and control of the various agencies in the embattled region.

Command Master Sgt. Sylvester Corry Jr. was among the personnel who were flown to the Superdome to set up a communications base for General Honore. A visitor of New Orleans in the past, Sergeant Corry was on site five days last week and said he has never seen anything like the damage around the coastal regions there.

"I got a chance to see it from a helicopter and there just isn't any way to fully describe it," he said.

But the picture improved greatly during the time he was there. Food, water and lots of support and rescue personnel were flooding into the region. He didn't see any looting and said there was no trouble at the Superdome during his time there.

As for JCSE personnel, they have been "playing a big role in helping" on the scene. JCSE has a wrecker on the ground in New Orleans and members were trying to organize rescue and hauling missions when he left to return to MacDill late last week.

"They (JCSE personnel) want to help out as much as they can and they are asking, what can they do."

Colonel Gaines said it is not known how long JCSE will be deployed in the efforts there but notes they will stay as long as they are needed, possibly serving for a month or more. They would be relieved by 93rd Signal Brigade before the 2nd JCS is set to deploy overseas at the end of the year.

In an environment in which good communications is a key component of the recovery, JCSE is providing the systems to make sure the mechanisms are in place that keep commanders and leaders talking when other communication infrastructure such as land phone lines, Internet and cellular services are only partially online.

"With something like this communication is a major component of success," said Colonel Gaines, who added that so far the training and experience of JCSE paying off under "extreme" conditions.

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