September 9 – Spc. Nicki Fellenzer 

It was a hug I will remember for the rest of my life.   

The little girl couldn’t have been more than three years old.  She was tiny, innocent, smiling and dressed in pink.  She and her little friends were lined up at the Civic Center in Lake Charles, Louisiana to receive snacks from Red Cross volunteers.  She and the other children were evacuated from New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina destroyed their homes, and those of many others, just over a week ago. 

A group of us, including several military police officers from the 229th Military Police Company from Virginia Beach, their Commander Cpt. Tanya Seymore and my partner Sgt. Brad Staggs, was taking a tour of one of the facilities in Lake Charles where the MP Company was to provide security support to the local law enforcement authorities.  The children looked at us and smiled.  The little girl waved at me, and I waved and smiled back at her.  She, then, approached me timidly and raised her little arms for a hug. 

As I leaned down to hug her, everything in me soared in joy and sorrow at the same time.  These little ones lost everything.  They would probably never return to their homes.  Their lives were irrevocably changed by the hurricane that tore through their city.  And here they were – happy to see help arrive, secure in the knowledge that we were there to do everything in our power to keep them safe and give them a sense of security.  The sight of these children reinforced in my mind why we are here – why we left our families on short notice, why we traveled over 1000 miles to Louisiana and why we smiled and laughed through heat, humidity and a sleepless night on a tarmac in New Orleans.  We were here to help the victims of the storm, and the sight of those children reaching out to us in love and gratitude reinforced the importance of what we are here to do.

As soon as the little girl wrapped her arms around me, several other children rushed over to the soldiers for hugs.  The big, tough cops melted as tiny arms engulfed them.  They broke out in smiles.  You could see the emotion well up in their faces.   

It was a moment to cherish. 

We had been traveling around Lake Charles with Cpt. Seymour all morning, visiting local radio stations, including KBIU (B103) and KYKZ 96.  We also stopped by KPLC Channel 7 News.  Cpt. Seymore did a stellar job explaining to the listening and viewing audiences that members of the Virginia National Guard were there to help those evacuated from New Orleans to Lake Charles.  She explained the Guardsmen were to support the local police efforts to maintain stability in Lake Charles, so the local law enforcement officers, who had been working overtime ensuring security and stability in this small city could return to their regular duties. 

Last night we stopped at Trinity Baptist Church in Lake Charles, after leaving the local National Guard Armory that had been our home for one day.  The local members of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness were extremely generous and kind to over 100 exhausted Virginia Guardsmen.  Planner Glenn Rogers and Emergency Response Coordinator Bobby Kingham worked hard to find us a place to stay for the night and a home for the next several weeks.  Pastor Steve James and his staff at the church generously agreed to allow us to use their facilities for the night, offering us an air-conditioned place to sleep, incredible shower and recreational facilities and even a wonderful pizza dinner.

Sgt. Staggs and I spoke with Rogers and Kingham for a while, offering our gratitude for the feast and the facilities.  We found out they arranged for us to stay at McNeese State University for the next several weeks.  The school was kind enough to keep two floors vacant for the Virginia National Guard, because all the hotels in the area were filled to capacity with those who left their homes in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  We're grateful for the accommodations.  We now have rooms, showers, air conditioning and even Internet service!  We have a chance to sleep, relax, take showers, watch television, or, in my and Sgt. Staggs' case, work.

Tomorrow is another day and another mission.  And for me, at least, the gratitude of a small girl, whose home is currently the Lake Charles Civic Center, has made all the difference in the world.