By Staff Sgt. Mike R. Smith
Guard Times Staff
STRATTON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Scotia — Just after Hurricane Katrina lined up in the Atlantic Ocean to pulverize the Gulf Coast with its wind, rain, and tidal flooding, New York’s Security Forces Airmen made their lineup for New Orleans Sept. 3 to protect and serve the rescue and relief operations.
Master Sgt. Timothy Kane, Master Sgt. Harry Johnson, Master Sgt. Christopher Short, Tech. Sgt. Patrick Hart, Staff Sgt. Thomas Feeley and Staff Sgt. Damon George, from the 109th Airlift Wing’s Security Forces Squadron, returned from those operations Sept. 20.
Over the course of nearly three weeks, they teamed up with convoys transporting supplies throughout the city. They flew on CH-47 Chinook missions with Bravo Company of the 159th Aviation Regiment’s 5th Battalion, Virginia Army National Guard, and they maintained the New York National Guard’s team-player reputation by working with fellow SFS professionals from New York’s 174th Fighter Wing Security Forces Squadron and other security units, whatever the mission.
“On a lot of our missions we were a [joint] team of two Army Military Policemen and two Air Force Security Policemen,” said Master Sgt. Harry Johnson. “So, we got to see how [the Army National Guard] worked, and it was a learning process for both.”
Johnson said that their mission developed along with operations at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Air Base New Orleans and its Bellchase, La., hurricane relief operations.
“We were [initially] assigned as Bellchase security with Soldiers from the 32nd Military Police Company, [Wisconsin Army National Guard],” Johnson said.
Johnson and his colleagues performed security duties there and escorted ground convoys of medical personnel, distinguished visitors, and equipment and supplies entering the city.
“We initially thought [Bellchase] would be a setup point for evacuees,” Master Sgt. Timothy Kane said. But the evacuees did not show, and the Airmen concentrated on the staging area where joint forces gathered relief supplies including MREs and drinking water for transport.
A high point in the State humanitarian mission came when they were asked to provide CH-47 Chinook air security on flights transporting search and rescue teams. Johnson explained that they secured the 159th’s landing sites and assisted with whatever its aircrews needed. Then they were asked to help out when the Bravo Company flyers picked up evacuees at the New Orleans Convention Center and transported them to the international airport.
“The aircraft commander saw how useful we were helping the evacuees, so he requested us to fly along on [additional] missions,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Kane described the people who had ridden out the storm, and they helped into the helicopter’s confined cabin for a rescue from the city: “Some were praying, some were crying, some stared straight ahead,” Kane said. One little girl, Johnson said, said “thank you” to them.
“I won’t forget that,” Johnson said.
“They had lost everything, but they were the friendliest people … they wanted to shake our hands and thank us for being there.”
“The medevacs were very rewarding; we saw we were accomplishing something there,” Kane said.
Back at Bellchase, Kane said the aircraft was delivering cargo to the airfield, one after another. “The helicopters were everywhere,” Kane said. “The aircrews, the pilots and loadmasters, were working very hard.”
The Airmen said they were briefed on the proper rules of engagement to integrate operational risk management before every operation, including how to handle situations that might arise during the mission. They kept hydrated in the oppressive heat, which, Kane said, dissipated with an occasional, but welcomed breeze.
“One of our main challenges was that everyone was armed, including civilians,” Johnson said. “I can’t say I blame them; they were trying to protect themselves and their families.”
At night, the New Yorkers gathered at their berthing in an aircraft hanger and shared the day’s experiences. Johnson and Kane said New York’s 139th Air Squadron provided cots for them to sleep on along with any gear and equipment they needed or requested.
“We appreciated the 109AW’s support, and the 139th went above and beyond to get us what we needed,” Kane said. “The helicopter unit was good to us as well.”
We couldn’t have done it without Capt. Anna Villanueva’s [109AW Security Forces Commander] and the Wings’ help, Johnson said. For their efforts, Security Forces Airmen may have passed that help in ways we will never know.