Air Reservists Mobilize for Katrina Relief Efforts
By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala., Sept. 6, 2005 Some airmen of the 908th Airlift Wing are returning to their home base today after participating in an overseas deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The troops aren't even back yet, but their commander says they're ready to serve again, only this time, in disaster-relief operations.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Cassandra Satterwhite, of the 908th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, provides comfort to an evacuee of the Gulf Coast aboard a C-130 Hercules from the 357th Airlift Squadron. Photo by Maj. Jerry Lobb, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"A lot of folks have been chomping at the bit to help," Air Force Lt. Col. John Stokes said. He said that his crews sent him e-mails that said, "As soon as we get back, we're ready to turn around and do hurricane-support missions."
The 908th, an Air Force Reserve wing assigned to Air Force Reserve Command, has been a busy unit in the past few years. The 1,260-person unit flies eight of the Air Force's C-130H Hercules. They were put into action most recently soon after Hurricane Katrina left the Gulf Coast in ruins Aug. 29.
"They call us up and ask us to do things, and we just do it," wing spokesman Maj. Jerry Lobb said. "We get a phone call, and four hours later we're gone."
The wing was tasked by U.S. Northern Command, the lead command element for military disaster-relief operations, to fly airlift missions around the disaster area. The wing provided aircraft, aircrews and aeromedical personnel. About 60 personnel from the wing have been called up to support hurricane-relief missions, including security forces and aerial port squadron personnel.
The 357th Airlift Squadron, commanded by Stokes, is just one of many squadrons from the 908th supporting Katrina efforts. The 908th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron is another one supporting disaster recovery, with 10 medical personnel and six in a crew-management cell.
"Our personnel are mostly serving in Louisiana and the coast," Air Force Lt. Col. Ronnie Roberts said. "They have been flying civilian personnel evacuation."
Roberts, a nurse when he's not in uniform as commander of the 908th AES, said most airmen in his squadron provide health care aboard aircraft.
"The needs are unbelievable," Roberts said of the disaster conditions. "I'm very proud of our crews. They've stepped right up."
Airmen from these units have evacuated about 60 military-affiliated evacuees from the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Miss., to here and later on to Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
Many of the elderly passengers had been awake for more than three days and were extremely frail, Lobb said. "Most of these folks weren't mobile, and they were in their upper 80s," C-130 pilot Maj. Steve Catchings said. "It took two to three hours just to get them off the buses."
Catchings said that while some were suffering from mental and physical exhaustion, one man asked a pilot if they were flying in a C-130. When the pilot answered that it was a C-130, the man said, "I've jumped out of those before."
A common thread among military responders to Katrina's aftermath is a knack for improvisation. The magnitude of the situation has required an extraordinary amount of flexibility from service personnel.
The airmen of the 908th ALW have also improvised in their Katrina missions. Members of the 25th Aerial Port Squadron were tasked to load generators bound for Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., which sustained a direct hit by Katrina.
The configuration of the generators made them too large for transportation by aircraft. Undeterred, the airmen allocated trucks and drove the generators to Keesler so Air Force personnel there could have power.
Crews have been flying steadily for the past week, flying a truck and 10 disaster-relief responders to Mississippi from Wyoming, evacuating the elderly from the Gulfport military retirement home to Maryland, transporting 10 chaplains from Georgia to the disaster zone, and flying aeromedical "shuttle" flights around the disaster area out of San Antonio, where most of the medical-evacuation activities are being staged.
Before the hurricane made landfall, the 357th was ready. "If any taskings came down, we had two crews ready to go," Catchings said.
But the unit's busy schedule isn't only reserved for Katrina. Roberts said that all of his flying-status personnel have deployed overseas in support of the global war on terror, many of them several times.
"We know the combat side of this," Roberts said. "When they pulled us in, everyone went out and did what they were trained to do," he said. But, Roberts admits, his crews have seen things in the last week they ordinarily don't experience on military medical flights, including an attack when a dog bit a nurse while she provided care to a patient.
"We're professionals," Roberts said. "We're out here, in natural disasters and combat."
Stokes said he has more volunteers than he does tasks. And he is personally planning to provide relief through an organized effort at his church.
"Something you see particularly in the Guard and Reserve is that they should have a chapter of 'overachievers anonymous,'" Lobb said. "They're very active across the gamut of what they do for the Guard, Reserve and their communities. You wonder when they have time to do the normal things in life."
Catchings summed up the squadron's current emotional state. "We wish we could do more," he said. "It's a huge logistical undertaking. We just let them know we're here and we're ready."