By Air Force 1st Lt. Phil Fountain, Missouri Air National Guard
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo., Oct. 5, 2017 — For nearly a month, the Missouri Air National Guard’s 139th Airlift Wing has been proving its value as part of the operational reserve by performing more than 100 sorties in support of hurricane relief efforts in Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
When Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, airmen from the St. Joseph-based 139th were among the first called to respond with their C-130 Hercules aircraft, said Army Maj. Gen. Stephen L. Danner, Missouri’s Adjutant General.
Helping Fellow Americans
“Our airmen were immediately ready to help their fellow Americans, first in Texas and Florida, and now in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands,” Danner said. “Bringing people and supplies to areas hit by these storms is a critical, immediate need and the fact our 139th was one of the first called and one of the most relied upon speaks to the wing’s professionalism and effectiveness.”
To date, the Missouri airmen have flown about 140 sorties in support of the relief effort, airlifting hundreds of thousands of pounds of cargo. The wing’s commander, Air Force Col. Ed Black, has flown a C-130 to the Caribbean islands. He was among the first to land on St. Thomas after Hurricane Maria.
“We all understand that our role is a serious one,” Black said. “We were able to land and put the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron [from the Kentucky Air National Guard] on the ground to open the airfield [on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands]. Opening the field is critical to starting the flow of relief efforts.”
Black also discussed the personal impact of the mission.
“Those hills used to be green -- every tree was stripped clean,” Black said. “The St. Thomas you remember is no more. It leaves an impression. It compels us to volunteer to assist in any way possible.”
Another pilot to fly into the region was Air Force Col. Timothy P. Murphy, the 139th Operations Group commander, who had the opportunity to directly interact with local residents.
“The resiliency of the people has been overwhelming,” Murphy said. “You see devastation all around you; no power, no timeline. Yet, they are still positive and just so grateful for every little thing we do. It is the attitude of everyone in the region that we encountered.”
Currently, the 139th has about 30 service members tasked to serve in the Virgin Islands. Their role is part of a larger mission being orchestrated by the joint-service 601st Air Operations Center, a component of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command.
Coordinating the effort on the ground is Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Rhys L. Wilson, the air cargo superintendent for the 139th. He is currently serving as the senior chief air advisor for the Virgin Islands Air National Guard and is overseeing the aerial port operations in St. Croix, which includes nearly 50 airmen from multiple Air National Guard wings.
“The people here truly appreciate us,” Wilson said. “I have received more hugs from total strangers.”
‘Morale is High’
Wilson said his airmen are excited to be part of the mission.
“The morale is high in the aerial port,” Wilson said. “They are working well downloading the airplanes and assisting the Army uploading trucks.”
Additionally, the National Guard Bureau has set up an aerial port in Savannah, Georgia, to coordinate Air National Guard assets flying into the region. The missions range from troop transportation to the delivery of food, water, generators, medical supplies and other needed supplies.
Even as the 139th supported hurricane relief operations, they’ve continued normal business and contributed greatly to a state mission in Missouri and have deployed airmen abroad.
“I’m very impressed with what our airmen have accomplished these past few weeks,” Danner said. “Even as they flew sorties to support fellow Americans affected by hurricanes, they mobilized dozens of members to support efforts for a recent mobilization to St. Louis, and have deployed dozens of airmen in support of overseas contingencies operations. Like the rest of the Missouri Guard, the 139th is a versatile, seasoned, ready force.”