National Guard rebuilds after IHOP tragedy
Maj. Mike Heil was in Hawaii, vacationing after his return from deployment with the Nevada National Guard to Afghanistan, when he received the phone call.
The news was shocking.
Three of his fellow Guard members had been killed during a mass shooting at the Carson City IHOP restaurant. Two other soldiers – including Jeremiah Mock, who had only returned to work days earlier after serving the same tour in Afghanistan with Heil – were among the seven wounded when lone gunman Eduardo Sencion, 32, opened fire at 8:58 a.m. on Sept. 6, 2011.
Civilian Florence Gunderson also was killed. Sencion, known to suffer from mental illness, then killed himself. No motive has ever been determined.
“For me, it was hard to understand,” Heil said. “It was hard to understand something like that could happen, and that it did happen in our town.”
The shooting a year ago today not only devastated the lives of the families and friends of the victims, it devastated the Nevada National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters unit in Carson City. Those killed held three of the five leadership positions in the unit.
“Not only is it difficult emotionally, but it hit the framework of the unit’s organization,” Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka said at the time. “It’s been decimated.”
Heil was asked to return to Carson City to take over as commander of the unit to replace Lt. Col. Heath Kelly, 35, who was killed along with Sgt. 1st Class Miranda McElhiney, 31, and Master Sgt. Christian Riege, 38.
It was a charge he readily accepted.
“I was glad they asked,” he said. “It was an opportunity to help. I wanted to do something, I think we all did.”
As he led formation at his first drill – the event the group was likely planning during that breakfast meeting – he said emotions were raw.
“A lot of people were still in disbelief,” he said. “It was very emotional and intense for a while. We tried to be available and we tried to offer help.”
While dealing with his own grief and those of his comrades, Heil also was tasked with creating a structure in the unit that had been lost along with the three soldiers.
“There was some continuity, but not much,” he said. “A lot of institutional knowledge, processes and day-to-day activities were lost. We had to go through a pretty substantial rebuild.”
And he let his fellow soldiers know he needed their help.
“It would take us working together as a team,” he said. “We all felt the loss together. We had to heal our wounds and bring our organization back together.”
During his eight-month tenure, he said, the unit did just that.
“It became a more sound, solid team than it had ever been,” he said.
The unit’s final drill before Heil left in May doubled as a mini annual training.
“That really helped to catalyze all the efforts and bring everyone together,” he said. “I think it’s in great shape and heading in the right direction.”
But that doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten.
“It’s always there,” Heil said. “You think about who they were and what they meant to us and this organization. It’s important to remember them. They were good people, good soldiers. There was no reason for this to happen.”
The Nevada National Guard will mark today’s anniversary of the shooting with a moment of silence at all facilities throughout the state.
“Their lives and sacrifices are important, and it is only fitting that as we continue with the vital Guard missions at hand, we take a moment to reflect on our core values and remember these soldiers,” Nevada Adjutant General Brig. Gen. Bill Burks said in a prepared message. “The tapestries of these rich lives are difficult to sum up in a few words, but their actions and our memories of them remain in our hearts.”
Sgt. 1st Class Mock, who has had multiple surgeries on his arm, returned to duty with the Nevada Guard. Sgt. Cait Koffarnus suffered serious leg injuries and continues to recover.
Heil, who is on temporary assignment in Washington, D.C., said he is confident the unit will continue to rebound.
“A lot of people put a lot of hard work into making it better,” he said. “Good on the organization. Good on them for all of the work they did to make that happen.”