Tar Heel of the Week: For former Guardsman, evacuating neighbors was common sense

By the time Antoinette Vereen fled her Lumberton home Monday, three feet of water had soaked her basement den, and the smell of the deluge was starting to aggravate her daughter’s asthma.

Their yard was a lake spotted with fallen trees, and Vereen was so anxious, she was vomiting. But her husband found relief in the form of Mark Bergstresser, who ferried the family to dry land in his motorboat, allowing them to make their way to her father’s home in Whiteville.

“He was dynamite,” says Vereen, 46. “I just thank God for him because if it weren’t for Mark, I don’t know what would have happened. I was just so scared we wouldn’t be able to get out.”

Vereen is one of dozens of residents of the Mayfair neighborhood off N.C. 211 who are lauding Bergstresser’s heroic efforts to evacuate his neighbors after their homes were cut off by floodwaters that had soaked their homes and left roads impassable.

Bergstresser, 29, has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recently took a job with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office. He downplays his efforts, noting he was among many neighbors, as well as local and state authorities, who stepped in to help.

He admits, though, his two tours abroad with the Army National Guard probably had an impact on his reaction to the devastation. The waters got so deep that a tractor-trailer sat out on N.C. 211 for several days after the storm.

“I’m kind of used to being in crappy environments,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me that much, and it’s just common sense to go around and help however you can.”

A job that matters

Bergstresser grew up in the Mayfair neighborhood, and his parents and siblings all live nearby. Both of his parents worked for years at the hospital in Lumberton; his father, now retired, headed the housekeeping department, and his mother works as a patient representative.

He had an early interest in the military, and studied criminal justice at UNC-Pembroke with an eye toward earning a degree so that he could be an officer once he joined.

He joined the Army National Guard when he was two years into college and did his first tour of duty in Baghdad. He decided to volunteer again instead of finishing his degree and did another tour of duty in Afghanistan.

In Baghdad, he was part of a team that apprehended suspects and brought them into custody, often by surprising them late at night in their homes. In Afghanistan, he helped clear roads of improvised explosive devices.

At one point, his truck was hit, and he suffered a concussion.

“At the end of the day our job was to find the IEDs and we found it, so still consider it a win,” he says.

Coming back home was a tough transition, he says. He tried and left a few jobs before deciding on a law enforcement career.

“You go from doing a job that, at least in your eyes and heart, really matters,” he says. “It’s hard to try to find something similar to that in civilian life.”

Bergstresser finished basic law enforcement training earlier this year, and just took his first job as a deputy. He notes that it’s a difficult time for law enforcement officers in the wake of the national controversy over police shootings.

“The job is not always held in very high esteem in public opinion,” he says, “but it’s a job that matters and there are good men and women all over this country that are willing to do it.”

Better to help

Bergstresser was in Fayetteville when the storm hit, signing a lease on a rental home that will allow him to live closer to his work.

Friends had told him that two trees had fallen on his own roof, and once he made it home he saw that water was coming in through the roof. After the rain stopped, the rising waters outside started seeping in.

He decided he should stay to help his family and quickly secured his home before heading out to survey the damage.

“I just put all of my belongings up on the bed and the kitchen table and headed out,” he says.

As the waters rose, he soon saw the utility of his 18-foot jon boat in getting people out of their flooded homes. So he and a few helpers started making trips, ferrying people from their homes to dry land.

“It was more or less putting two and two together, using a little common sense and knowing people needed a way out,” he says.

Bergstresser figures he’s ferried at least 50 people – maybe even 100 – in the days after the storm. Most of them were families with a few belongings and their pets.

One woman flagged him down saying she needed kidney dialysis and had to make it in for treatment at the hospital. Another time the area rescue squad asked him to take an oxygen tank to someone’s home. The next day, they persuaded that resident to leave the area and ferried him to safety.

Bergstresser says the flooding during Hurricane Floyd only barely touched homes but Matthew inundated homes with waist-high water.

For Vereen and many of her neighbors, the ride to dry land only started their journey. She and her family met her father at Interstate 95 and embarked upon a six-hour journey to Whiteville – a trek that usually takes less than an hour but was complicated by flooded roads.

She has returned to her neighborhood with supplies for those who stayed.

“It’s not a good time,” says Vereen. “But it’s better when everyone is helping one another.”

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Mark Bergstresser

Born: July 1987, Lumberton

Residence: Lumberton

Career: Deputy, Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office

Education: Studied at UNC-Pembroke; completed basic law enforcement training

Fun Fact: Bergstresser is 6 feet, 8 inches tall. His apt nickname is “Too Tall.”