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When an elderly St. Charles woman went missing this spring, the Winona County Search Operations Assistance and Rescue team — or SOAR, for short — was among the first to respond to the call for help.

Members of the small but dedicated group sprang into action assisting volunteers and law enforcement from other agencies in an effort to locate the missing woman. Unfortunately, these searches don’t always have a happy ending. The woman was found dead just a few days later.

It’s a reality that Greg Lemmer, who has served on the team for nearly four decades, knows well.

The former SOAR team president still remembers his first call for service like it was yesterday. Then just 18, the teen had just completed his training when he got called out to search for a missing partygoer who hadn’t made it home.

“I was the one that found the person, unfortunately, they were deceased when I found them,” he said.

The traumatic experience forced him to reconsider whether we was cut out for the SOAR team.

“But the end of the day, we’re able to bring closure to the family and closure the friends that were with them,” he said. “From that aspect it kind of offsets some of the more disheartening facts.”

As uncomfortable as the job can be, 42-year-old SOAR team member Jamie Kammerer says it’s worth it.

“If I had a loved one go missing, I’d want as many people out looking for them (as possible),” he said.

But while search and rescue is right in the team’s name, their responsibilities extend far beyond that.

The team itself was formed to assist the sheriff’s department in times of crisis or when additional man-power may be required. SOAR team members assist the department with a variety of tasks including search and rescue operations, event security, water rescues and crime scene security and surveillance.

In fact, if you’ve been to any recent festivals this year, you probably have seen them at work and didn’t even realize it.

“A lot of the time we’re mistaken for a regular deputy,” Kammerer said.

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But, despite their very real badges and uniforms, members of the SOAR team aren’t deputies or officers or even licensed peace officers.

They’re volunteers.

But as more members retire and it gets harder to find people willing to make the commitment, the team’s numbers have begun to dwindle.

According to SOAR team president Ray Sylvester, the team typically averages between 20 to 25 members, but today that number has fallen to just 12.

But unlike some volunteer fire departments or first responder teams, joining the SOAR team won’t cost you anything more than your time. To qualify, candidates must be at least 19 years old, be in good physical condition, have a reliable vehicle, valid driver’s license, and have a cellphone or landline.

“It’s a really good beginning step for people who want to get involved in law enforcement,” Sylvester said.

Once approved, candidates will receive training for CPR, use of force and radio communications. All materials, including uniforms, are also provided at no charge.

Lemmer said joining the SOAR team is a great way to give back to the community, but volunteers should be prepared to deal with difficult situations that might not be comfortable.

However, according to Kammerer, that’s the exception to the rule.

“There is a lot of downtime,” he said. “It’s not like we’re called out every month.”

Instead a lot of the SOAR team’s time — especially during the summer festival season — is spent providing event security and community policing.

“There is always a job that needs to be done,” Kammerer said.

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Tobias Mann covers crime and government in Winona County. He can be reached at 507-453-3522 or at tobias.mann@winonadailynews.com

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