SALT LAKE CITY — Roughly 100 members of the Utah National Guard set out for Colorado on Thursday to help rebuild following widespread flooding.
But it was unclear when they would actually get to work because of the Washington budget battle and a potential federal government shutdown.
“Those things are out of our control,” said Capt. Eric Holland, convoy commander for the group from the 1457th Engineer Battalion. “Our focus is being able to respond to the citizens of this nation.”
The soldiers can only respond to a point. Holland said the plan was to travel to the Boulder area, position the group’s vehicles and equipment, survey the area and formulate a plan, and then return home. If a federal shutdown happens next week, the guardsmen will likely be sidelined.
“Hopefully they figure out whatever they’re doing with the budget,” Staff Sgt. Daniel Wall said. “That’s when we’re going to have the money to go.”
The issue has already drawn the ire of Colorado leaders. On Wednesday, Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, calling on him to change the status of the Colorado and Utah guardsmen to “exempt personnel” — meaning they would be able to continue to perform their duties even if other federal workers cannot during a potential shutdown next week.
“We must have these engineers on station as quickly as possible and without disruption to their funding,” the letter read. “We urge you to take immediate action to guarantee that funding for the National Guard disaster recovery mission in Colorado will not be interrupted in the event of a shutdown.”
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., blasted those who are threatening to force a federal work stoppage in a statement issued to KSL on Thursday.
“We are grateful that our neighboring states are able to assist,” Polis said in the statement. “But it is a travesty that partisan politics could prevent this assistance by keeping Utah’s National Guard in Utah to wait out a government shutdown.”
When they’re able, Holland said the engineer soldiers will work to clear debris and repair roads along U.S. 36 in Boulder and Larimer County.
The mission is expected to take at least two weeks when work begins. Holland said guardsmen were hopeful they could return to Colorado as soon as early October.
The soldiers were upbeat about their mission Thursday morning as they started to line up their trucks before dawn.
“That’s why I joined the National Guard — to help people,” Wall said.
Maj. D.J. Gibb, the group’s executive officer, said the guardsmen were happy their equipment was simply up and running.
“It’s really an opportunity to say, 'Hey, we’re going to go out and help these people,'" Gibb said. “It’s not us out playing golf on the weekend. We’re out there doing something good for the people of Colorado and even in our own state.”