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Illinois Services Airmen take on the path of the hurricane

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Brian Lovingood
  • 182nd Force Support Squadron
Imagine watching the evening news with your family and you witness everything being ripped away in the blink of an eye from the citizens you took an oath to serve. What would you do?

Would you have the courage to put everything on hold? Would you set aside a sister’s sixth birthday party, a little brother’s basketball games, or a degree you’ve been working so hard for, all to do something selfless for an island of strangers you’ve have never met?

This was the case for a team of Illinois Air National Guard services personnel when called to support American citizens in their great time of need.

A category 5 hurricane barreled violently towards the island of Puerto Rico in September 2017. Scientists named it “Hurricane Maria” — a deceivingly innocent name.

Once it made landfall, Hurricane Maria decimated almost everything in its path. To date, it is one of the most powerful and devastating hurricanes to ever reach the island, leaving many without power and little access to food and water. The damage done in the aftermath was almost surreal: shattered windows, collapsed buildings and splintered powerlines littered the ground. Family photos that captured every meaningful moment for generations were now lost. The vibrant streets once lined with lively elementary schools and churches now sat silent.

The overwhelming need for help in the days following the storm was apparent. Hundreds of stories capturing the utter despair dominated the news on morning talk shows and in the newspapers. When the Illinois National Guard headquarters reached out statewide to ask for members who would be willing to give their time and service to bring hope to people who’ve just lost everything, 18 services members from all walks of life answered the call.

Within weeks, these selfless Airmen left the comforts of their homes and left their families and jobs to be airlifted into Puerto Rico. Since arriving in early November, Master Sgt. Mindy Strader from the 182nd Force Support Squadron and her team worked side-by-side with the other ANG members and the Army to support the humanitarian effort in Puerto Rico. The services personnel consisted of seven members from the 182nd Airlift Wing, seven members from the 183rd Air Wing and four members from the 126th Air Refueling Wing.

In the short time, they joined forces to aid Muniz Air National Guard Base, Caguas, Salinas and Mayaguez and served 1,200 meals utilizing a Disaster Relief Mobile Kitchen Trailer, or DRMKT. The military specifically designed the advanced mobile kitchen and its equipment to give the ability to feed federal, state and local support agency personnel, as well as citizens, in disaster environments.

Strader and her team used the trailers to serve unitized group rations to the people residing on the island. UGRs are a type of semi-perishable prepackaged meal that Services uses to feed large groups of people in emergencies. These containerized meals come in a variety of breakfast, lunch and dinner options ranging from scrambled eggs to buffalo chicken. While UGRs are sufficient to sustain feeding for a short period, they are no replacement for a home cooked meal — a capability the Services team hoped to have in a few weeks when they gained access to restaurant-quality food.
Strader said that her team’s goal was simple: Leave Puerto Rico better than they found it.

To do this, they began training the Muniz ANG Services personnel on how to fully utilize the DRMKT and how to run the lodging operation. Aside from food service, the Services team also managed lodging for their area of the island and created continuity binders for their fellow Airmen to use to run the lodging and food operations long after they have gone.

What is most inspiring about these Airmen is even though they were operating in an environment surrounded by so much despair, this Services team came to work ready to tackle the challenges of each day with smiles on their faces.

They know that providing a meal served by people who care and offering and a warm bed to sleep in brings some sense of normalcy in a world riddled with uncertainty and chaos. In truth, Services rarely, if ever, sees the frontline during a war, but this fight was different. We didn’t need F-35 Lighting II attacks or A-10s to strike fear in the hearts of our enemies. What we needed was to provide those basic necessities to people to keep them alive, to give them hope, and that is where Services shines.

Puerto Rico is where Services had the ability to help save lives. That was the Services’ frontline. That is where they impact the fight.

After the humanitarian mission was over, the 182nd’s Tech. Sgt. Kenyetta Thomas went back home to her wonderful little girl and to her fulltime job at the Children’s Hospital. The 126th’s Senior Airman Robert Haslerig returned home to his wife, rowdy twin boys and to his job as a DISA contractor at Scott AFB. The 183rd’s Monaja Jackson left Puerto Rico, the island where her grandmother was born, to go back home to a loving husband, her two daughters, and young girls she started mentoring this year. All 18 Airmen returned to their normal lives and seamlessly slipped back into their roles in their families, jobs and communities as if they had never left. And yet, the impact they made during their time in Puerto Rico will never be forgotten.

Natural disasters are inevitable, and there is nothing that we can do to stop them. As long as these tragic events continue cause damage to U.S. citizens and other citizens around the world, these Services personnel will be ready to answer the call and once again live up to the Airman’s Creed and leave no Airman, or American, behind.

Editor’s note: The author wishes to recognize all the Illinois Air National Guard Services personnel that answered the call to support the hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico:

From the 182nd Airlift Wing: Master Sgt. Mindy Strader, Tech. Sgt. Kenyetta Thomas, Senior Airman Maya Houston, Senior Airman Shanequa Washington, Airman 1st Class Kaylee Larkin, Airman 1st Class Starlyn Stratton, Airman 1st Class Oscar Vidales

From the 183rd Wing: Senior Airman Monaja Jackson, Senior Airman Collin Orrill, Senior Airman Meagan Rice, Senior Airman Keith Washam, Senior Airman Devon Wemple, Airman 1st Class Riley Elliott, Airman 1st Class Hailee Weisenberger

From the 126th Air Refueling Wing: Tech. Sgt. Destiny Jordan, Staff Sgt. Rachael Gillis, Senior Airman Robert Haslerig, Senior Airman Shannett Whitehead