Members of the Disaster Assessment and Recovery, DAR, unit of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service come from a variety of professional backgrounds, but those with previous military experience seem particularly well suited to the role, according to Monty Dozier, Ph.D., DAR unit director, Bryan-College Station.

Damage from hurricane depicted by broken and toppled trees and homes missing parts of their roof.
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s Disaster Assessment and Recovery agents are deployed to areas of Texas — and sometimes other states — affected by a disaster or emergency situation. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo)

”DAR team members lend community support and assistance during hurricanes, floods, freezing weather and other natural disasters,” Dozier said. “They are among the first in our agency to leave and among the last to return when responding to a disaster or emergency.”

He said DAR team members who previously served in the military have already had experience with deployments and adapting to unusual or difficult circumstances.

“Our veterans often have a mindset that focuses on a commitment to service, hard work, discipline, teamwork and dedication to a mission until it has been completed,” Dozier said. “These qualities and other positive characteristics typically associated with military service translate extremely well into the DAR team.”

There are currently 18 DAR agents throughout the state, nine with prior military experience.

More about the DAR team

DAR team members and other AgriLife Extension personnel serve in locations throughout the state where disasters or emergencies have occurred. The DAR team supports the emergency response efforts of groups from The Texas A&M University System, such as the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, as well as state agencies, such as the Texas Division of Emergency Management. It also provides support to national response organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  

DAR and other AgriLife Extension disaster responders stand in front of a building with their masks on and boxes of supplies in front of them.
DAR team members and other Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service personnel helped distribute supplies. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo courtesy of Rachel Bauer)

“For decades, AgriLife Extension personnel from around the state have been assisting with disaster and emergency response and recovery,” Dozier said. “In such times, our DAR agents serve as a leading force and are a vital part of our first line of defense and service to the people of Texas.”

He said DAR team members are often deployed to affected areas where they may serve for weeks, months or even a year or more, which was the case during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The few, the proud … the DAR agents

Will Stevens, who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1993 and served 20 years as an electrician and emergency responder and then as a utilities engineer, is a DAR team member based in Lufkin.    

Stevens said his military service provided both knowledge and a mindset he uses almost every day as a DAR agent.  

“We were taught to think of alternate solutions, make quick decisions and complete the task at hand,” he said. “Working as a team, we could formulate a plan and make the best possible decision for minimal damage to life, limb and infrastructure.”

As a DAR agent, Stevens has primarily been involved in response and recovery related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including delivering test kits, personal protective equipment and vaccines.

However, he said his military mindset was most helpful when he was given a challenging assignment during Winter Storm Uri, which blanketed a large portion of Texas with snow and ice.

“During the storm, I got a call to bring a load of blankets to a homeless shelter in Houston, so the residents could be warm and comfortable,” he recounted. “I knew temperatures were going to be below freezing, and the roads were icing over and might not be drivable. But the bigger picture was the mission of making sure to take care of our fellow Texans. So, another team member and I drove more than 120 miles from Lufkin to Houston to deliver those blankets to our Texans in need.”

He also said that, in an unusual way, his military experience helped him better relate to and empathize with those affected by a disaster.

“When Hurricane Katrina hit, my wife and kids were in Louisiana, and I was stationed in Maryland,” he said. “I felt helpless that I wasn’t able to get to them and provide any help or reassurance. Because of my experience, I easily relate to and empathize with individuals and communities affected by disasters. I do not want anyone to ever go through what my wife and family or the other people in Louisiana did during Katrina.”  

Soldiering on with the DAR team

Merryl Holmes, a DAR agent who is based in Harris County, served in the U.S. Army for 12 years before joining AgriLife Extension.

A man, Merryl Holmes, delivers a pallet of COVID-19 supplies.
Merryl Holmes making one of many supply deliveries related to COVID-19 relief. (Courtesy photo)

“Thanks to my service in the military, I developed a mindset that plays a big role when it comes to responding to disasters or emergency situations,” he said. “I learned to be very flexible, stay aware of my surroundings and maintain my composure in challenging situations.”

In his time with the DAR unit, Holmes has responded to three disasters: COVID-19, Hurricane Delta and Winter Storm Uri. 

“My primary role during COVID-19 was helping the Texas Department of Emergency Management deliver personal protective equipment and COVID-19 vaccines to various local communities throughout the region. During Hurricane Delta, I helped the them survey homes and businesses affected by the hurricane. And during Winter Storm Uri, I assisted with getting food and water to local governments for their communities.”

Holmes said the willingness of the DAR agents to assist no matter the situation reminded him of his experiences in the military.

“Those in military service are part of a tight-knit community,” he said. “The camaraderie among DAR agents reminds me of the camaraderie we had in the Army.”

Flying high with DAR

Troy Luepke, a DAR agent based in Boerne, near San Antonio, served in the U.S. Air Force for more than 20 years. 

“My deployments during military service taught me that no matter how much I plan or prepare for a task, I need to be ready to change as the nature of the task I am assigned to changes,” he said. 

In his role as DAR agent, Luepke has supported COVID-19 response efforts, initially as a member of the statewide strike team sent to respond and then by supporting COVID-19 testing activities in his region. He was a member of the TDEM task force that set up state-owned inflatable tents for testing and provided similar support as part of the Governor’s Task Force.

“We supported the COVID-19 testing missions from the beginning, then pivoted to deliver personal protection equipment where it was needed,” he said. “I was part of the statewide school testing program, first by delivering testing supplies and then by providing training to the staff using those kits.”

Luepke later assisted with delivering vaccines and supplies to military teams, hospitals, medical clinics and others, then returned to his school testing mission.

“All the while, the team based in San Antonio also provided support for TDEM supply deliveries,” he said.

He said being in the military taught him service to others while performing all tasks necessary to complete the mission at hand.

Luepke said his experiences in the military helped him understand the importance of being part of helping people deal with disaster and recover from it.

“When you see what these people are going through and the losses they have experienced, it gives you a whole new perspective on life,” he said.   

DAR team member Asa Jillson loading truck with disaster relief supplies
Asa Jillson loads disaster relief supplies into a truck for delivery. (Courtesy photo)

Getting on board with the DAR team

Asa Jillson, a U.S. Navy veteran, has served as a DAR agent for the agency’s District 9 office for a year and a half.  

Jillson has primarily dealt with helping fulfill the agency’s COVID-19 mission while serving several roles in providing his support.

“I think one of the most important things I learned in my military experience and training was to take a step back and assess a situation before you react and jump into the middle of the chaos,” he said.

Jillson said DAR agents work with most state, local and federal agencies and often must use their own judgment and discretion in making solid decisions that will help them complete their mission.

“This ability, coupled with the support of other AgriLife Extension agents from counties throughout Texas, also gives us the ability to be ‘force multipliers’ in supporting those other agencies that provide their assistance during an emergency response,” he said.  

AgriLife Extension and the military

AgriLife Extension has many programs specifically designed to enhance the lives of active-duty and veteran military members, and the agency devotes numerous resources to serving those who have served their country.      

“We value those who have devoted themselves to military service and are glad some of them have joined the DAR unit,” Dozier said. “The same discipline, training and selfless devotion they used in the military now help the people of Texas in their time of need.”

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