Exploring Alabama: Rocket Men

Darren Gilley, WSFA Photojournalist
Darren Gilley, WSFA Photojournalist

Recently I met a young man from my hometown of Geneva who does something most guys would like to do. In fact, quite a few good ole boys from south Alabama do it. But it took 'em more than two years just to get ready to do it.

The young man I met is Juvenile probation officer Toby Seay. He spends his days keeping track of kids who've been in trouble with the law. His mission: make sure they straighten up and fly right.

Then one weekend a month and a couple of weeks during summer, probation officer Toby Seay becomes Sgt. Toby Seay. A 15-year veteran in the army national guard's 117 th Field Artillery unit, he's now certified to operate the army's multiple rocket launching system. He makes sure those rockets straighten up and fly right, too.

I caught up with Toby and his fellow guardsmen at Camp Shelby, Mississippi where they spent two weeks learning first hand what it's like to be a "rocket man." If you were to see the launch, you are amazed that the flames from the rocket engine engulf the entire launch vehicle that is about the size of a garbage truck.

Inside, Toby and another team member sit calmly coordinating the firing of each of the launch vehicle's 12 rockets. Amazingly there is little heat or noise associated with the launch. You couldn't tell that from the thunderous blast felt at our vantage point about a hundred yards away.

The process begins when vital information on the enemy target is relayed to Toby's team. Their onboard computer processes the information - the vehicle moves into position - fires its rockets, and delivers its warhead - with deadly accuracy.

The Public Affairs Officer for the Alabama Army National Guard, Lt. Col. Bob Horton, says members of the 117 th have done an outstanding job of making the transition from traditional cannons to the high tech rocket launchers.

Life at Camp Shelby was not ideal. But, despite the oppressive heat, choking dust, and at times rain soaked fields, the guardsmen hung in there. 1 st Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Mark Weeks says troop morale never dropped. Weeks had nothing but praise for the exercises, which came off without a hitch.

The 117th is made up of guard members from Andalusia, Citronelle, Luverne, Greenville and Geneva. We'll just call 'em the rocket men of south Alabama.

Reporter: Bob Howell