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National Guard troops gather at Keesler to fight oil spill

BILOXI — For the first time since Hurricane Katrina, Keesler Air Force Base will house 50 Mississippi National Guard soldiers to support ongoing oil spill response operations and, if called upon, to augment civilian authorities in the wake of a major hurricane developing in the Gulf of Mexico.

The National Guard infantry soldiers, all recently returned from Iraq, will serve as a “quick reaction force” to offer the flexibility necessary for future operations, said Col. Lee Smithson, commander of Task Force Vigilant Horizon, which is overseeing the Mississippi National Guard’s response to the oil spill. Specifically, they will coordinate the civilian clean-up vessels, he said. The soldiers are from Alpha Company 1/155th Infantry headquartered in the St. Martin Armory in Jackson County. The additional troops bring the total to about 125 soldiers under Task Force Vigilant Horizon.

Smithson said the decision to activate a small contingency force was made this week after consulting with Gov. Haley Barbour and U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, who endorsed the need to “think forward.” But the plan had been in development for months, particularly when weather prognosticators predicted as many as four major hurricanes making landfall in the United States, Smithson said.

As for the length of the mobilization, he said it was too early to tell.

“Unfortunately, hurricanes are a way of life here along the Gulf Coast, and the ongoing oil disaster only complicates matters further,” Smithson said. “Fortunately, as we enter ‘Phase Lighthouse’ we’ve mobilized our best, and we are very grateful for Keesler Air Force Base for its logistical support. Otherwise, we would really be in a logistical quandary.”

Smithson alluded to the limited housing available as a result of oil spill response workers, and a preference to contain a military unit in military quarters.

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