By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Robert Barnett
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska, March 2, 2015 – Alec Fonoti, a civilian mechanic for an on-base laundry service here, had prepared a big dinner to take to a friend's house. He loaded the food and his family of nine into his vehicle and left.
That day, Jan. 3, was the last day Fonoti and his family would spend in their house.
"The fire report said the [stove] burner on the left was still slightly on," Fonoti said. "A fire caught and it destroyed the whole house."
When they returned, the Fonotis checked on their neighbors first, making sure they were safe. Fortunately, the fire had been limited to their house -- but everything was destroyed.
"I couldn't think right," Fonoti said. "For a big family like mine, I got so stressed that first day. At that point, I thought I might end my life. It was so hard for me, it was painful."
A Fellow Vet in Need
Fonoti served in the Army as an infantryman from 1987 to 1994. In mid-February of 1991, the 1st Battalion, 42nd Infantry Regiment (Mechanized), 3rd Brigade, 2nd Armored Division, was the first to breach the Saudi Arabia border in Operation Desert Storm. Fonoti was among the soldiers in that unit.
"I was in the middle of combat," Fonoti said. "We came out and fought. I saw a lot of what was going on."
He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
After the house fire, Fonoti told his supervisor he couldn't focus on work. Word of the situation soon spread to first sergeants across the base, and that's when Air Force Master Sgt. Robert Chastain, then-first sergeant for the 673rd Force Support Squadron, stepped in.
"I knew the house had burned down," Chastain said. "I could see how bad it was really affecting him -- he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He couldn't even navigate through the electronic process to order a refill for his PTSD medicine."
The first sergeant helped Fonoti get the medicine refilled. He also reached out to other first sergeants and explained what had happened. He explained that there are many Air Force programs available to help out when there's a need.
"Most of the programs are for military," he said. "So I told [the other first sergeants], ‘Whatever you can get me, I need. If you've got something that you don't need, I'll take it.' We were able to replace [a lot]."
Collective Efforts Pay Off
The first sergeants were able to find the Fonotis a house downtown they could afford, he said.
"Before we did that, they were going to the homeless shelter. That's how serious it was," Chastain said. "Think about that, a family like that in December [with] sub-zero temperatures on the streets. Helping them really and truly became my whole focus and purpose."
Helping the Fonotis was among the many actions that earned Chastain the 673rd Air Base Wing First Sergeant of the Year award.
"[First sergeants] don't do it for recognition or a thank you, but we came in the next day [to see] two huge posters made by all those children that said, 'Thank you, Master Sergeant Chastain, for this,' and there's a laundry list of things they received," the first sergeant said.
"It gives you a warm feeling,” he added. “We displayed [those posters] inside Building 600 for a couple weeks so everybody could see how their efforts helped."
Fonoti said Chastain’s actions helped save his life.
"I [felt] like I'd been in combat again -- when you fight, they fight with you like a band of brothers," Fonoti said.