JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. --
More than 130,000 pounds of humanitarian aid was airlifted to relief organizations in Central American and Caribbean nations by the 315th Airlift Wing, Feb. 5, during a training mission that carried cargo as part of the Denton humanitarian program.
The cargo, which mainly consisted of food, was donated by outreach groups and humanitarian organizations within the United States. It will provide an estimated 5.4 million meals to nearly 285,000 people - primarily children – in Nicaragua and Haiti.
The 315th Airlift Wing flew two Joint Base Charleston C-17 Globemaster III aircraft for the Super Bowl weekend missions to Haiti and Nicaragua. In addition to providing humanitarian relief, the mission also served as a valuable training opportunity for the Citizen Airman aircrew.
“It’s really a twofold mission,” said Lt. Col. Mark Pool, director of operations for the 300th Airlift Squadron. “We get to deliver the Denton cargo, and we get a lot of really good training out of it as well. We fly a lot from Charleston to Europe, downrange, and to AORs, but not that often do a lot of our young pilots and young loadmasters get to fly into these smaller countries that have a lot more difficult approaches, in non-radar environments, with a lot more terrain involved. The mountainous environment adds that extra level of training that we don’t get in a lot of places.”
Pool explained that the primary reason for the mission is the training benefit to the Reservist aircrews, who conducted aerial refueling, navigated through multiple countries’ airspace, and offloaded cargo with limited ground support.
“You really see how many people you helped with all those pallets of cargo,” said Senior Airman James Noble, loadmaster with the 300th AS. “It’s definitely a great feeling.”
In total, the cargo included over 110,000 pounds of food, primarily in the form of dry rice and soup mixes, as well as over 9,000 pounds of school supplies, children’s clothing, toys and stuffed animals, bicycles, and medical equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers, and canes. In Nicaragua, the cargo was delivered to World Mission Outreach, a charitable organization that distributes it to local children.
“It’s a sense of pride with helping out,” said Noble. “We’ve done a couple of these missions, and the crews really come together – it’s a good bonding experience.”
The Denton program, named for former Senator Jeremiah Denton, allows private citizens and organizations to use space available on military cargo planes to transport humanitarian goods to countries in need, without any added cost to the recipient nation or the Department of Defense.
“You see the impact of what you’re doing,” said 1st Lt. Stewart Calder, co-pilot with the 300th AS. “It’s good training for us, it’s sometimes challenging flying into these places, and it’s nice because what you’re doing is very tangible.”
Master Sgt. Drew Cheek, loadmaster with the 300th AS, said that the duration and timing of the mission helps to train the drill-status reservists.
“It’s a quick and efficient training for traditional reservists who have Monday through Friday jobs,” said Cheek, who also serves as an instructor and evaluator to the younger loadmasters. “Especially when there are fewer of us, it’s better for training reasons because they get more time hands-on.”
The U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua, Laura Dogu, greeted the aircrew and welcomed the valuable aid supplies when the first aircraft arrived.
It was explained that these deliveries show that the American people are still willing to donate in order to help the people of Nicaragua, who want the best for their families.
Much of the food is used in daily feeding for up to 20,000 children, many of whom live in slums and in orphanages in Haiti and Nicaragua and receive one hot meal per day through World Mission Outreach’s distribution program. For many it is their only meal.
“I’ve been to Haiti, and had a minister there come up to me to shake hands with tears in his eyes,” said Cheek. “He said ‘I’m in charge of feeding 10 thousand kids and we ran out of food last week, and you just showed up with 60,000 pounds of rice.’ Whenever you have people who come up to you and talk to you and say things like that, that’s a huge difference. You know it’s going to somebody who needs it.”
Once offloaded and cleared through customs, the cargo was handed over to the aid organizations, which distribute it to multiple schools, orphanages, and the needy. The valuable food is monitored by the outreach organizations to ensure that it is distributed appropriately, and not resold on the black market or otherwise pilfered.
Amanda Sowards, mission director at World Mission Outreach, said that the donations totaled $60,000 worth of food, which is enough to provide a total of 5.4 million meals.
“One shipment is the majority of our food for the year,” said Sowards, whose organization feeds 15,000 children per day at 70 locations throughout Nicaragua, including schools and rural communities. One shipment makes a tremendous difference, she said, and that without these shipments their ability to provide hunger relief wouldn’t be possible, because local farmers don’t have the resources to provide the food needed.
Sowards explained that to promote food security, they teach agriculture classes in local schools.
“That way, students learn the fundamentals of how to bring food to their tables no matter what, and won’t be dependent on donations,” said Sowards. “We’re not just giving them food, we’re also teaching them how to grow it themselves.”
“We work in extreme poverty,” said Donna Wright, World Mission Outreach founder. “It’s not that we want to do this long-term or forever - you hope to get them out of that poverty eventually – but it’s the children who really suffer.”
Wright explained that malnutrition was a severe problem in the poor areas of Nicaragua, and that the feeding programs create a major impact on sustaining the poorest children.
“If a child doesn’t get anything but a half a cup of rice per day, it would sustain them,” said Wright. “The people will tell us that before we started feeding them, their children were sickly and unhappy. But now they’re happy, they’re healthy, and when we take things to them we’ll play with them, and they love on us, and when the children start loving on you like that, that’s worth all the hard work.”
Wright said that some of the most difficult parts of providing aid were securing the donations and the logistics of transporting it from the U.S. to their location.
The staffs at the aid organizations personally give out wheelchairs, medicines, vitamins, clothes, shoes, and other goods as they receive it.
The 300th and 317th AS are components within the 315th Airlift Wing, the Air Force Reserve unit located at the Joint Base. The 315th and Joint Base Charleston have supported the Denton program since 1987, when it was established.