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419th reservists offer help, hope in Haiti

Ms. Erin Pemungia and her newly adopted son, Noah, age 7, wait to board an Air Force Reserve C-17 aircraft from the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, March Air Force Base, Calif. The aircraft traveled to Port-au-Prince Jan. 22 to deliver 15 personnel and equipment from the 419th Fighter Wing’s 67th Aerial Port Squadron. The 67th APS members will be deployed to Port-au-Prince for at least 45 days and will assist with airfield operations. The aerial porters, all volunteers, will help pave the way for increased U.S. humanitarian aid in the aftermath of last week’s devastating earthquake. Prior to returning to the United States, the C-17 took on 54 passengers, including Ms. Pemungia and Noah. Most were Haitian orphans traveling to the U.S. to be united with their adoptive parents. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Kari Tilton)

Ms. Erin Pemungia and her newly adopted son, Noah, age 7, wait to board an Air Force Reserve C-17 aircraft from the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, March Air Reserve Base, Calif. The aircraft traveled to Port-au-Prince Jan. 22 to deliver 15 personnel and equipment from the 419th Fighter Wing’s 67th Aerial Port Squadron. The 67th APS members will be deployed to Port-au-Prince for at least 45 days and will assist with airfield operations. The aerial porters, all volunteers, will help pave the way for increased U.S. humanitarian aid in the aftermath of last week’s devastating earthquake. Prior to returning to the United States, the C-17 took on 54 passengers, including Ms. Pemungia and Noah. Most were Haitian orphans traveling to the U.S. to be united with their adoptive parents. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Kari Tilton)

Senior Airman Sterling Broadhead and Tech. Sgt. Cody De Los Reyes play cards to help pass the time on the C-17 that landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti Friday. They and 13 other reservists in the 419th Fighter Wing's 67th Aerial Port Squadron volunteered to assist in the humanitarian efforts there. (U.S. Air Force photo/Bryan Magaña)

Senior Airman Sterling Broadhead and Tech. Sgt. Cody De Los Reyes play cards to help pass the time on the C-17 that landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti Friday. They and 13 other reservists in the 419th Fighter Wing's 67th Aerial Port Squadron volunteered to assist in the humanitarian efforts there. (U.S. Air Force photo/Bryan Magaña)

Members of the 419th Fighter Wing’s 67th Aerial Port Squadron step off a U.S. Air Force Reserve C-17 aircraft onto the tarmac at the Port-au-Prince airport Jan. 22. The group will be deployed there for at least 45 days. They will load and unload cargo and passengers from aircraft going in and out of Port-au-Prince as part of the massive multi-national relief effort underway there. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Kari Tilton)

Members of the 419th Fighter Wing’s 67th Aerial Port Squadron step off a U.S. Air Force Reserve C-17 aircraft onto the tarmac at the Port-au-Prince airport Jan. 22. The group will be deployed there for at least 45 days. They will load and unload cargo and passengers from aircraft going in and out of Port-au-Prince as part of the massive multi-national relief effort underway there. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Kari Tilton)

A medical vehicle rushes across the ramp at the Port-au-Prince airport where 15 members of the wing’s 67th Aerial Port Squadron deployed Jan 22. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kari Tilton)

A medical vehicle rushes across the ramp at the Port-au-Prince airport where 15 members of the wing’s 67th Aerial Port Squadron deployed Jan 22. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kari Tilton)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- In the days following the massive earthquake that recently surged through Haiti, U.S. concerned citizens watched news footage of crumbled homes, heartbroken widows and half-buried bodies - all from the safety of their sofas.

Other citizens - Citizen Airmen - headed straight to the scene of destruction, eager to offer help and hope.

On Friday, 15 Air Force Reservists from the 419th Fighter Wing's 67th Aerial Port Squadron at Hill Air Force Base dropped everything to join the multi-national relief effort.

"When I saw on the news that they were sending U.S. troops to Haiti, I wanted to be part of it," said Tech. Sgt. Cody De Los Reyes, a full-time student at Idaho State University. "So when I had the opportunity to deploy, I took it."

In fewer than 48 hours, he'd kissed his wife and six-month-old daughter goodbye and was on a C-17 headed to the devastated island. Many of the aerial porters, all volunteers, returned from deployment to Iraq just months ago.

The Airmen will load and unload cargo and passengers at the Port-au-Prince airport - the center of the ongoing relief effort. Supplies, equipment, and personnel are beginning to flood the airport's ramp and Hill's aerial porters will play a key role in keeping critical, life-saving provisions flowing.

"We are crucial to this mission because we specialize in getting cargo off the aircraft quickly and getting it where it needs to go," Sergeant De Los Reyes said.

After a five-hour flight, their boots touched the tarmac and they stepped into the very image they'd seen on the news just hours before. They marched straight from the jet, through warm, heavy, smoke-thickened air, to the makeshift tents that will be their home for the next 45 days or more.

"We've been trained to help," said Senior Airman Sterling Broadhead, a husband and father who recently returned from Iraq. "The Haitians are in desperate need and I'm available, so I'm going to do whatever I can to help."

As the sun set on Port-au-Prince Friday, wide-bellied cargo jets, humvees and helicopters crowded the airport, bustling with uniformed men and women from around the world. In the coming weeks, the 419th reservists deployed there hope to help calm the frenzied scene.

"They will bring order to chaos, and they are very good at what they do," said Col. Walter "Buck" Sams, 419th FW commander. "Our folks will carry out the most important and most gratifying mission we have - saving lives and helping people in need."

This help will arrive jet by jet, and after the aerial porters unload the crucial supplies onboard, they hope to reload the aircraft with precious, human cargo as there are countless earthquake victims - mostly children - in need of transport to the U.S.

In fact, the same C-17 that carried the reservists to Port-au-Prince returned to the U.S. that night with 23 Haitian orphans on board - soon to meet their new adoptive parents.

"They're just ordinary people like me and my family," Sergeant De Los Reyes said. "If my country were affected by an earthquake, I would want help too, so I'm really happy to be able to help the people of Haiti."

Saving lives is the very heart of this deployment and the 67th APS, which was recently named Air Force Reserve Command's Aerial Port of the Year, is proud to play a part, and stands ready to help when and where there is a need.

"Our personnel are prepared to stay on the ground in Port-au-Prince as long as they're needed," Col. Sams said. "We're in this for the long run."