JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
In the aftermath of three devastating hurricanes striking Texas, Florida and the Caribbean region of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Citizen Airmen of Air Force Reserve Command’s 433rd Airlift Wing flew their 17th mission in a C-5M Super Galaxy in less than a month to answer their nation’s call for help in the commonwealth of Puerto Rico in response to the destruction of Hurricane Maria.
“Like today, we hauled almost 180,000 pounds of cargo, and the C-5M Super Galaxy has the ability to come and go,” said Lt. Col. J.C. Miller, pilot and 433rd Operations Group deputy commander, referring to minimal refueling during missions in Gulf Coastal and Caribbean regions. “This is our 17th hurricane related mission in the past month, and with the 433rd (AW) in the center of the United States, our location makes it ideal to help out.”
Their most recent mission involved transporting 240,000 pounds of humanitarian cargo in a four-day span from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3, 2017. The missions included transporting Army soldiers, communications vehicles, supplies, fuel trucks, a portable hospital, medical equipment, generators, water, food and medical supplies.
To gather all of these vital supplies needed to restore the lives of 3.5 million American citizens in Puerto Rico back to normalcy, the Reserve Citizen Airmen made stops in Colorado Springs, Colo. and MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. to pick up supplies and delivered their cargo to the cities of Ceiba and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“The loading of equipment with a lot of non-standard equipment,” Miller said. “Missions like these train us for combat missions with the irregular cargoes.”
Amongst the most important assets delivered and two fuel trucks, was a Joint Incident Site Communications Capability (JISCC) vehicle.
JISCC is a 20-foot mobile communications system, which allows interoperability between two agencies, providing an efficient communication system for emergency responders in the varied terrain of Puerto Rico. Building on lessons learned after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, civilian and military first responders could not talk to each other on separate systems. JISCC will provide satellite service while interlacing communication assets between the Army and civilian first responders.
Ports and refineries in Puerto Rico are damaged and could take weeks to repair according to a statement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The C-5M brought fuel trucks with fuel for the Army vehicles on the ground.
“Missions like these, where we haul fuel are awesome training for combat missions,” Miller said. “This is the type of training that the war effort has trained us to do and help out with a humanitarian effort and vice versa, so it works out great.”
Another vital piece of equipment is the portable hospital being sent by the Veterans Administration on the AFRC C-5M. The VA hospital on the island’s capital of San Juan is operational, while nine out of 10 of the clinics are also functional.
The VA clinic in Ponce, where the hurricane made landfall in the southwest region of the island, is destroyed. The portable hospital and its lifesaving equipment will deployed to the region. VA clinics on the island will treat any American citizen needing medical care, not just veterans, said Rick Rhodes, a coordinator with the Veterans Administration Emergency Management team.
“It is very, very important for us to get this cargo on this aircraft,” Rhodes said. “We’ve struggled a little bit with transportation trying to get equipment to Puerto Rico with it being an island, it is difficult to get things down there.”
Other vehicles belonging to the VA were put are on barges and will take several days to get to the island according to Rhodes.
“We were ecstatic when we found out that we could use this Air Force Reserve aircraft,” Rhodes said, adding that the vehicles would be on the ground in a matter of hours after landing in San Juan.
Citizens and Reserve Citizen Airmen helping was a common theme on this mission. Within hours after Maria, a category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds that pounded Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Citizen Airmen were responding to the call for help from their fellow Americans in the Caribbean.
Reserve Citizen Airmen like Senior Airmen Antonio Farias, a 433rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron chief, believes in helping others.
“This is something important and a chance to give back,” he said. “I wanted to directly support this mission. It is your duty to humanity to give back, and all those good times I could have had last weekend will be there at home when I get back."
Farias understands the mission will impact people who might not have a home currently.
“These people in Puerto Rico might not have a home, we (as Citizen Airmen) should do what we can so they can have a home,” he said.
Miller shared his sentiments about why Citizen Airmen leap at an opportunities to assist when America needs their military skills.
“It brings about a purpose that this is what we have been training to do," he said. "In the end, this is a calling, everything else is a job. There are three things that the C-5s from the 433rd (AW) do: Bringing home the fallen to their families, fly and supply the warfighter, and providing humanitarian relief to our own people, or throughout the world.”