SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico --
More than three-dozen members of the Kentucky Air National Guard have processed 7.2 million pounds of humanitarian aid through a cargo hub they established here Sept. 23, working around the clock to download relief supplies from hundreds of aircraft and prepare the aid for distribution across an island ravaged by Hurricane Maria.
With the cargo hub now running smoothly, the team of Airmen from Kentucky’s 123rd Contingency Response Group is handing off primary responsibility to the Puerto Rico Air National Guard and preparing for their return to Louisville.
“As the only contingency response group in the Air National Guard, we have a very specialized mission set,” explained Col. Bruce Bancroft, commander of the 123rd CRG. “Our primary purpose is to deploy to the location of an event like a natural disaster and open an aerial port of debarkation — typically at a non-functioning airfield — so relief supplies can flow in.”
Bancroft said the unit is fully self-sufficient, bringing everything needed to establish cargo and passenger terminal operations, from tents, food and fuel to electric generators, satellite communications equipment and all-terrain fork lifts.
“Once operations are well established, we hand off responsibility to personnel who will staff the aerial port for as long as the situation dictates,” Bancroft said. “That’s what we’re doing here: transferring responsibility to the next group of Airmen.”
The 123rd CRG has put in a tremendous amount of work over the past three weeks to get to this point, Bancroft noted. Thirty-nine Kentucky Air Guardsmen, augmented by one troop from the Mississippi Air Guard, arrived at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport here Sept. 23 to find an airfield without reliable power and few functional services.
“Conditions were pretty rough,” he said. “The electricity was down, water was being rationed, and the roads were largely impassible. Light poles were down, power lines were down, trees blocked the roadways.”
Despite the challenges, the Airmen quickly established full operational capability and received the first plane-load of humanitarian aid the next day. Since that time, the group has downloaded 7,234,020 pounds of cargo from 268 aircraft, according to Maj. James Embry, the group’s director of operations.
In a true team effort, the aircraft originated from units across the U.S. government, including active-duty, Air National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard C-130s, C-17s and C-5s.
The 123rd CRG also processed 3,887 passengers arriving from a variety of agencies, including the Department of Defense and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to assist with relief efforts.
“The biggest challenge we’ve faced was the coordination required between all the different services and agencies, finding the right people to talk to, getting the right cargo moved to the right person,” Bancroft said. “There’s a lot choreography that needs to happen.
“Our greatest success has been the transition from an aerial port of debarkation — receiving and staging a lot of arriving supplies — and turning that into a distribution network that moves the humanitarian aid off the airfield. It’s extremely important for me to look at my cargo yard and not see any pallets. While we were still building this operation up in the first few days, there were a lot of pallets here that weren’t out there helping people, and now we don’t have that issue. The cargo is moving off this airfield quickly, and it’s getting out there to help people who need it.”
As the mission’s capability has grown, so has its staffing. Over the past two weeks, the original Kentucky contingent has been augmented by dozens of additional Airmen, arriving from the active-duty Air Force and Air National Guard units in Alaska, Connecticut, Mississippi, Nevada and Wisconsin.
For Senior Master Sgt. Joshua Younce, who also deployed with the 123rd CRG to establish cargo hubs in the Caribbean following the 2010 Haiti earthquake and in Senegal after the 2014 Ebola crisis, the mission to help the people of Puerto Rico has been especially rewarding.
“Missions like this are what I like about being a member of the Air National Guard — helping fellow Americans in a time of need,” said Younce, the unit’s Mobile Aerial Port Flight superintendent.
“We’ve been working around the clock, seven days a week, downloading cargo from aircraft ever since we got here. We’ve been downloading a lot of water, a lot of food, generators for FEMA. We’ve also been downloading a lot of equipment for first-responders. It’s a great feeling to know we are applying our skills and expertise to make a difference.”
Bancroft agreed, noting that the group has processed more humanitarian aid during this mission than any other in its history.
“I’ve been in this business a long time,” he said. “I’ve been in the Air Force for 22 years, I’ve been doing the contingency response business for nine years, and we have broken every possible record the CRG has ever set. It surpasses the Earthquake in Haiti, it surpasses the Ebola response mission in Senegal. So we are just far beyond anything in both pounds moved, pallets moved, people moved and aircraft worked.
“This operation is literally saving lives,” he added. “People say that a lot out of context, but we see the humanitarian aid that’s coming in, we’re physically putting our hands on it, and we’re watching it load onto trucks for distribution across the island. That’s extremely gratifying.
“This is exactly what we train for every day. The worst thing that can happen for a unit like this is to train and train and train, be deployable for any location in the world, and then just sit on the bench. The 123rd CRG is not on the bench — we’re out there in this mix, doing the operation wherever we’re needed in the world.”