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Florida National Guard helps fill shortage of bus drivers

Sun Herald/Sept 1, 2004

Richard Duckworth had run out of time.

It was Friday, just a couple of days before the return of the Charlotte County school year, and the district's transportation director still needed drivers to pick up the 1,800 additional students who would have normally walked to school before Hurricane Charley made seven schools uninhabitable.

He made a call to the Emergency Operations Center, and the problem was quickly solved. The EOC found drivers trained to deal with stressful situations and tactical operations.

Duckworth had soldiers.

A few Charlotte High School students got an interesting surprise in the form of a Florida National Guard soldier, complete with full camouflage, driving their bus to school this week.

Twelve two-person teams helped fill in for the shortage of drivers in transporting many Punta Gorda students to their new classes at Port Charlotte High School.

According to Duckworth, they performed like professionals on the first day, even picking up students who were not originally scheduled for any of the bus routes.

"They've been a welcome addition," Duckworth said. "We wouldn't have been as successful without them."

According to many of the soldiers, they are just as happy to help the hurricane-stricken county. Before the 24 became temporary bus drivers, they were among the approximate 4,000 soldiers sent to the county to help in transporting items, securing the area and passing out vital items to residents hit hard by Charley.

But then the soldiers got a call saying bus drivers were needed, and by the weekend they were receiving 16 hours of specific bus driving training.

All the soldiers have a military license, and most have driven tractor trailers before, giving them the confidence to drive a bus.

But not a vehicle stacked with hormone-filled teenagers.

"We heard a lot of horror stories," said Staff Sgt. Barry Fredericks, 40, of Daytona Beach. "But the kids were pretty good."

None of the soldiers reported any problems from the students. They did say they received some mock salutes and nicknames like "Mr. Army Guy."

Despite their training and tips from full-time bus drivers, who rode along with the soldiers during some of the practice routes, a bit of anxiety hit the soldiers before they began the first pickup Monday.

"I was nervous about getting the students safely to school," Fredericks said. "We treat them like they're our own kids."

The soldiers depart from the Charlotte Performing Arts Center shortly after 11 a.m., and leave for the day around 8:30 p.m. To find their way around, one soldier guides, while the other drives.

Landmarks such as billboards and buildings, and the counting of streets -- all military tactics -- are used to find the way around streets that often are without signs.

"As long as the maps are accurate, we could get in the ballpark," said Sgt. Richard Acevedo, 40, of Orlando.

According to Sgt. Dennis Wheeler, the use of maps and landmarks is only part of the military training that the soldiers used.

"It's a lot of self-discipline on how to retain one's bearing and not reflect anything negative," said Wheeler, 52, also of Orlando. "That is the mission, to show a positive outlook."

The soldiers will receive their next orders Friday. Whatever they are doing, whether it is driving students or passing out ice, they are just pleased to contribute.

"Everyone that's out here is very happy to do this," said Fredericks. "As long as we're helping the community, that's what matters.

"Whatever their needs are, that's what we're here for."

You can e-mail Dan Tierney at


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911:  The Road to Tyranny