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Madras couple responded to terrorist attacks

Donna Strong was deployed to Ground Zero where the former trade towers once stood while her husband, Mike, helped ready a "push package" at Andrews Airforce Base
News Editor
   A humble Madras couple knows a thing or two on America's war on terror from firsthand experience.
   Donna and Mike Strong weren't around much after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
   The two U.S. Department of Public Health Service employees were sent near the sites of both terrorist attacks -- Donna took her medical talents to aid rescue and recovery workers at Ground Zero where the twin towers once stood, while Mike took his pharmaceutical knowledge to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., to ready an antibiotic-containing "push package" in the event of a biological or chemical terrorist attack.
   "We're glad to have been able to serve," Mike says now from his comfortable living room chair in the home off Grizzly Road the couple has shared since moving here from Alabama three years ago. To the Strongs, a couple of strong faith, the call to action was a blessing.
   Like everyone, they reacted to news of the terrorist attacks with spells of disbelief. But given their combined 33 years of experience in the U.S. Army and their skills as uniformed personnel with the federal Indian Health Service in Warm Springs, they weren't surprised to be called into action.
   Donna was in Anniston, Alabama, receiving training on bioterrorism defense when the tragedy took place. On the morning of Sept. 11, her instructor told Donna and her fellow students that New York had been hit by terrorists.
   "We thought he was giving us a scenario and asking us how we would respond," Donna recalls.
   Nine days later, she was in New York at Ground Zero with a medical team treating recovery workers suffering from a wide range of ailments -- from lacerations and smoke inhalation to eye injuries, fatigue and dehydration.
   "It was like a battle zone," says Donna, who also served in Desert Storm with her husband. "The pictures on TV do not do it justice, that's for sure.
   "The guys working there nonstop would hardly come off the pile. You couldn't get them to stop because they were afraid to come into the clinic because they were afraid we'd send them home."
   Because Donna was three quarters of the way to New York, she was one of the few aid workers from the West Coast. Other potential nurses like Donna couldn't make it because of logistics problems. She and 42 others with the U.S. Department of Public Health Service's Commission Corps Readiness Force met in Bethesda, Maryland, and worked at Ground Zero for 14 days beginning on Sept. 20.
   "You could smell the burning flesh," says Donna, recalling the grim reality of the situation. "At that point it was mostly just body parts -- not whole people -- just parts of them that they were recovering."
   Meanwhile, Mike was being deployed to Andrews Air Force Base because he is one of the few members of the Commission Corps Readiness Force trained to respond with the emergency National Pharmaceutical Stockpile.
   The stockpile contains the now well-known "push packages," bundles of antidotes for chemical warfare and antibiotics for bacterial infections that can be deployed anywhere in the United States within 12 hours.
   Mike was in Maryland for one week providing technical assistance to ready the stockpile for deployment should Washington, D.C., or the surrounding areas be hit with biological or chemical weapons.
   But the "expected" attacks did not occur, as Mike recalls it. That is, at least not during the week he was back east.
   Mike and Donna left their duties in Warm Springs with the blessing of the tribal members -- something they are grateful for.
   "The support we received from the tribes was wonderful," Mike says. "At the time of the disaster, the tribes gave us permission to respond and our absence would have come out of their pocket. They were willing to do without, so to speak."
   As U.S. Public Health Service officers, the Strongs provide medical services to Warm Springs tribal members.
   Before Mike left for Andrews Air Force Base, a ceremony was held in Warm Springs to wish him and his wife well, as the tribal members sent medicine bags and prayer cards with Mike.
   The Strongs were moved by their experiences in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Particularly, they were moved by the strength and compassion people showed toward one another in light of the tragedies.
   "You would just see hundreds of little memorials set up around the site," says Donna, trying to hold back tears. "And the citizens would stand next to the road with `God Bless You' signs, `Thank You' signs and cookies. They were grateful that people came and responded.
   "When people think of New York they don't usually think of those things."
   Mike was even touched by generosity on his way out of town. He had given Donna "the good car" not expecting her four day trip to turn into 22 days. So when he headed toward the Redmond Airport in their 1978 clunker, it broke down near Terrebone.
   He walked to a nearby farmer's house to explain the situation.
   "He said, `Well sonny what would you like me to do?' " Mike recalls. Then he took Mike to the airport without thinking twice.
   The farmer towed the vehicle onto his property and kept it in his garage the entire time the Strongs were away, helping others.