By Army Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Cossel

Calm cloaked their anguish as residents whose homes were ravaged by the Thomas Fire lined up at the Temple Beth Torah parking lot in Ventura, Calif., Dec. 9, waiting for the chance to see their home, perhaps grab a few items, or even just to know what, if anything, was left.

“What we’re doing here is shuttling residents back to their homes, giving them about half an hour or so to collect a few items [and] see what’s left, and then bringing them back down here,” said Ventura City Police Sgt. Kenny Welch.

Welch said downed power lines, possible toxic chemicals from the fire and other hazards make the area unsafe for a full return.

In addition to Ventura City Police, soldiers from the California Army National Guard’s 140th Chemical Company sat behind the wheel of large passenger vans, augmenting their law enforcement counterparts, shuttling people into the affected area, and helping to unload their precious belongings once they’d returned.

Photo credit Army Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Cossel

Pvt. Rod Valle assists residents of Ventura, Calif. unload items they were able to retrieve, Dec. 9 after visiting their home. In conjunction with the Ventura City Police, Soldiers from the California National Guard’s 140th Chemical Company shuttled residents impacted by the Thomas Fire.

Sorrow Mixed With Joy

“It’s been absolutely heartbreaking taking some of these folks back to their homes,” said Army Spc. Alex Lavritzen of Palmdale. Lavritzen said many of the people he was shuttling back and forth had no idea what the status of their homes was before he brought them there. Sorrow was mixed with joy as some residents were spared, he added, while others lost everything.

“As hard as this is, I’m really glad we’re out here and able to help these people in any way we can, especially during the holidays,” Lavritzen said.

Welch said the guardsmen have been big contributors to the police department’s efforts. “We would not be able to do this at the rate we are without the Guard’s help,” he said. “We’ve easily been able to increase by a factor of four times the amount of people we’re able to take up into the affected area.”

In addition to the increased manpower, Welch said, the California Guard members brought with them a level of organization and professionalism that is appreciated by local law enforcement officials and the residents of Ventura.

“I’ve talked to a few of our community members, and they’ve had nothing but great things to say about the men and women of the California Guard – they’re personable, kind and extremely thoughtful,” Welch said.

Lavritzen and the other soldiers of the 140th Chemical Company had recently returned from duty supporting operations in Santa Rosa in the wake of the devastating North Bay Fire, which destroyed more than 7,000 homes and buildings.

“I’ve definitely provided more direct, hands-on assistance with this fire,” Lavritzen said. “It feels good to be able to look at folks – look them in the eye [and] shake their hands. … That’s what we do: Californians helping Californians,” he said.

This story originally appeared on

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.