Pride of the Islands
The U.S. Virgin Islands are correctly touted as America’s Paradise. Their white sandy beaches, turquoise blue waters and laidback lifestyle draw tourists from around the world, especially during the winter months.
But the small land masses in the Eastern Caribbean also produce some of the National Guard’s most resilient soldiers and airmen, says Maj. Gen. Kodjo S. Knox-Limbacker, the adjutant general of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The annual National Guard Bureau Health of the Force Report, he explains, determines the most resilient states and territories by tracking a variety of health data. “A lot of it has to do with alcohol use, tobacco use, suicide rates and ideation, as well as fitness and diet,” he says. “We normally hover between No. 1 and No. 3 of the most resilient Guard units in the nation.”
Knox-Limbacker attributes the ranking to a force hardened by nature’s fury.
The islands are in the middle of Hurricane Alley. Atlantic storms with the power to rip roofs off houses and topple power lines are an annual threat, and, as they approach, there is nowhere to evacuate. Residents, he says, must be ready to “hunker down and ride it out.”
“We have to buy 10-days’ worth of food and water, and then you have to be ready to button up your house at any given time,” Knox-Limbacker says. “You also have to make sure you have enough cash on hand, because when the power goes down, no one’s taking credit cards. I think by nature when they grow up here in the Caribbean, they become more resilient.”
Hurricanes are “part of the cost” of living here, he says. There are also benefits, Virgin Islands Guardsmen say, and they’re not just talking about year-round 82-degree weather.
“It’s a great place to live,” says 1st Sgt. Kellen Phillips, a full-time deputy marshal in the islands who is in the 104th Troop Command. “We all look after each other. Yes, we have our problems, but I wouldn’t want to raise my boys anywhere else.”
Phillips grew up with the threat of hurricanes, but never faced the full brunt of one until 2017 when Hurricane Irma hit the island of St. Thomas. It severely damaged the apartment where he and his family lived. “We lost a lot of pictures, a lot of memories, all the furniture,” he recalls. “It was like starting over from scratch.”
When big storms strike, territory officials fully mobilize the Guard. Irma and Hurricane Maria, which struck the island of St. Croix two weeks later, were so destructive that 46 states and territories sent help.
But the force’s primary mission isn’t hurricane response. “We’re combat-oriented, hurricane-postured,” Knox-Limbacker says. “Fighting our nation’s wars is our No. 1 priority. That’s what we’re trained to do.”
The Army and Air Force have put that training to wide use in recent years. The Virgin Islands Guard, the smallest of the 54 with only about 600 soldiers and 80 airmen, has contributed to nearly every operation worldwide over the last three decades.
“I think on the first deployment, we kind of had to prove ourselves,” explains Phillips, a military policeman with five deployments in his 23 years in the Army Guard — Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2003; Kuwait in 2005; Kosovo in 2009; Afghanistan in 2014; and Qatar in 2019.
“Nobody really knew where the Virgin Islands were,” Phillips says. “I would tell them that we’re next to Puerto Rico and show them on the map. But after that, especially on the MP side, the word was out: Hey, these Virgin Islands National Guard soldiers, they’re pretty good. They’re squared away. They know what they’re doing.”
“Anyplace that we have gone, we have always excelled,” says Chief Warrant Officer 5 Mervin Mills, the territory’s command chief warrant officer and full-time safety officer with 35 years of service. “We have always excelled at what we do because we take pride in what we do.”
This small, proud force hardened by hurricanes and multiple deployments celebrates its 50th anniversary in October with a series of events, including military balls on St. Croix and St. Thomas and a golf tournament with Links to Freedom Golf Foundation.
I think by nature when they grow up here, they become more resilient.
—Maj. Gen. Kodjo S. Knox-Limbacker, the adjutant general of the U.S. Virgin Islands
THE U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS are located in the Lesser Antilles about 110 miles east of Puerto Rico. They consist of three main islands (St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas) and 50 smaller islets and cays. The capital is Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. About 90,000 people call the islands home today.
Those born here are U.S. citizens, but the population is a diverse melting pot that also includes people from Caribbean nations, Europe and Africa, as well as the continental United States.
Most of the force structure is on St. Croix. This includes the only Air Guard unit, the 285th Civil Engineer Squadron. There’s also one Guard facility on St. Thomas, but none on St. John.
The islands have been a U.S. territory since 1917, but many formative periods that contribute to its culture occurred earlier.
Seven national flags have flown over the USVI since Christopher Columbus set foot here during his second voyage in 1493: Spain, Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, the Knights of Malta, Denmark and now the United States. Today, cars still drive on the left, a remnant of the islands’ lengthy European colonization.
The Danish West India Company brought slaves from Africa to the islands in the late 17th century to work in the sugar plantations. By 1789, slaves made up 88% of the island’s population, according to historical accounts. They won their freedom by decree of local Danish officials July 3, 1848, after a revolt on St. Croix.
Emancipation Day, as it is called, still resonates. Statues on the islands depict a newly freed slave blowing into a conch shell in one hand while holding a cane knife in the other. The USVI marked the 175th anniversary of the event this year with events and an inscription on license plates.
Knox-Limbacker included the Freedom Statue in the Virgin Islands Guard’s new branding and his challenge coins. The figure is the islands’ Minuteman, he says. It’s flanked by the Army and Air Guard logos.
Following the end of slavery, the plantation economy slowly collapsed. The Danish government repeatedly tried to sell the islands. After decades of negotiations, the United States finally bought them for $25 million, fearing if it did not, Germany would seize the islands for use as a U-boat base.
The Navy administered the territory until 1931. The Interior Department took over after that. The Army Reserve was its military force.
The Virgin Islands Guard’s federal recognition in October 1973 was the product of two years of work after its creation in law in 1971. Rep. Ron de Lugo, the territory’s first federal lawmaker, sponsored the legislation. Only the Guam Guard, created in 1981, is younger.
Knox-Limbacker, who has been adjutant general since May 2019, knew the force well as a child growing up in the islands. His mother was in an MP unit. “It was a family affair on the weekends,” he says. “Everyone knew each other’s kids. You were really close.”
This is his first post in the Virgin Islands Guard, but he does have previous Guard experience. He left the islands to attend Georgia Military College, where he enlisted in the Georgia Guard. After earning his commission as a Distinguished Military Graduate from Augusta State College, he served 25 years in the Army, much of it in aviation and intelligence units and later in the Pentagon.
Knox-Limbacker separated from the active component to become the adjutant general because it was a chance to help the “home team.” Today, not just the Virgin Islands Guard but the location of the islands is becoming more relevant to the National Defense Strategy, he says.
The USVI has long been the eastern-most point of the United States, which is why the force is known as the Guardians of the Eastern Front. But with China’s increasing efforts to influence events in the Western Hemisphere, especially in South and Central America, the islands are a valuable “force-projection platform.”
Anyplace we have gone, we have always excelled.
—Chief Warrant Officer 5 Mervin Mills, the command chief warrant officer of the U.S. Virgin Islands Army National Guard
HURRICANES AREN’T THE ONLY DOMESTIC CHALLENGE the Virgin Island Guard faces. The current low-paying civilian job market is another.
Tourism is the territory’s economic engine, which sputtered after the storms of 2017 and stalled during the pandemic. Even when running well, it provides mostly service positions that don’t cover a high cost of living. A large oil refinery on St. Croix was once a major employer, but it has been mostly idle since 2012. Knox-Limbacker says some of his troops don’t have just two jobs but three or four.
The situation has forced some people to leave the islands. There has been a drop in the USVI’s population in recent years. Virgin Islands Guard troop strength has also declined. Many of those who left are the kind of experienced troops a force wants to retain, troops who “exceed standards,” he says. But they’re in demand for civilian positions elsewhere.
To stem the flow, Knox-Limbacker has made greater use of a Defense Department policy that allows him to cover the travel expenses of those who live outside of “normal commuting distance.” They work full-time in say Florida or Virginia and fly to the Virgin Islands for drills. They also must return if a hurricane is projected to hit the islands. Many accept the long commute to maintain their ties to the islands, he says.
But flying to training is simply part of being in the force. Many members of units on St. Croix live on St. Thomas. They must catch a plane to drill. Sometimes, Virgin Islands Guard travel planners, who have no organic air assets in the islands, can arrange aircraft from another state or territory. Most months, however, the troops must buy a plane ticket, which the Guard covers.
Additionally, the islands’ limited training areas and no military ranges mean that units must conduct their annual training outside the territory, and that requires more air travel. Often, the destination is Puerto Rico. They’re also regulars at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.
The Virgin Islands Guard has two UH-72A Lakota helicopters, but they are currently based in Michigan. NGB removed the aircraft in 2015 due to corrosion from poor maintenance, according to press reports in the islands. But Knox-Limbacker, who began his career as an Army aviator, attributes the problems to inadequate facilities near the shore and its moist, salty air.
A new Army Aviation Support Facility set for St. Croix will allow the helicopters to return, he says. Construction is set to begin soon and be completed by 2027. The site will also host the 23rd Weapons of Mass Destruction-Civil Support Team.
The force has a partnership with the Michigan Guard that includes more than housing helicopters. The relationship, which began in 2018, covers combat readiness requirements and leadership development. Michigan Guardsmen will also be the first troops outside the islands to respond to the next hurricane. The two organizations also plan to team for an event at the next NGAUS conference.
Knox-Limbacker calls Michigan the Virgin Islands Guard’s “big brother” and the perfect partner. “It will never have a hurricane,” he says, “and we will never have a snowstorm.”
The Michigan Guard introduced their partners from the tropics to the ultimate cold-weather endeavor with a training benefit: biathlon. The sport combines cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship. For many of the islanders, it was their first time on skis. Predictably, they had trouble staying upright at first.
Undaunted, the Virgin Islands Guard has since formed a biathlon team coached by Mills, an accomplished scuba diver and triathlete. The team has gone on to compete in several Guard competitions.
“We hear jokes about Cool Runnings,” says one team member, Staff Sgt. Priscilla Desormeaux, a photographer with the 51st Public Affairs Detachment who currently lives and works in Washington, D.C., referring to the movie based on the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team.
That hardly deters their participation. A force hardened by nature’s fury has no fear of new experiences or a little competition. Besides, after biathlon events, most of them get to return to America’s Paradise.
John Goheen is the NGAUS director of communications. He can be reached at john.goheen@ngaus.
TOP PHOTO: The 73rd Army Band performs at the Virgin Islands 49th Annual Agriculture and Food Festival on St. Croix in 2020. (Photo by Sgt. Donna Swan)