ANGRC, JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. --
In the midst of unprecedented hurricane destruction that stretched from Texas to Puerto Rico, our nation witnessed a great logistical feat last fall. Working alongside myriad other first responders, several thousand Air National Guardsmen from across the U.S. sprang into action ahead of and in response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. They saved hundreds whose lives were in direct peril, including many in Texas.
The work of Guard pilots, pararescuemen and air traffic controllers — alongside countless others from across government — was probably one of the underreported military stories of last year.
Many of those who did the most exhausting work pivoted from one disaster to the next in a matter of hours and days. It was a massive symphony, written and played in real time. From the rampaging floodwaters in Houston to the denuded landscapes of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, our country has not witnessed such wide-scale and urgent challenges since Hurricane Katrina.
In San Antonio, a major staging area for much of the relief effort, Texans had the chance to witness firsthand the dedication and valor of our citizen airmen.
As we enter another hurricane season in the United States, I feel compelled to highlight this unique effort for several reasons. Perhaps the most important reason is that it tells an essential story of America’s total force, the active-duty, Guard and Reserve troops who since 9/11 have seen little respite, overseas or on the homefront. I am especially proud of the Army and Air Guardsmen who, exhausted from one storm, hopped aboard airplanes and flew directly to the next.
The destruction in Houston was only the first phase. In Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, airmen worked with the whole of the U.S. government to open airfields, conduct daring rescue missions and evacuate gravely ill patients on a scale significantly larger than Katrina. Together, these citizen airmen flew close to 2,000 sorties, carried nearly 12,000 passengers and rescued more than 900 people. Some of the rescues were perilous — Hurricane Irma left 4,000 Americans stranded on St. Martin, some with dire medical conditions.
Under any other circumstances, this would be extraordinary, but it should be remembered that our part-time military in the National Guard and Reserve have other missions as well. From protecting America’s airspace to flying remotely piloted aircraft against terrorists overseas, the Air Guard plays an essential, if sometimes overlooked, role in keeping Texans and all Americans safe.
It is our good luck as an Air Force that many of the missions we perform dovetail with America’s commercial air travel and space industries. You can’t spend time at any Guard or Reserve base without running into someone whose full-time job is flying or working as a mechanic for the airlines. They are among some of the most skilled and experienced warriors we have.
On any given day, from Joint Base Andrews in suburban Washington to Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Houston and March Air Reserve Base, California, between 8,000 and 10,000 Guardsmen are directly involved in maintaining the safety of U.S. skies while also fighting terrorists overseas. The Air National Guard is made up of just over 100,000 airmen, so at any given time 10 percent of that force is directly involved in the fight and another 10 percent is preparing for critical stateside or overseas missions.
Examples abound. The Air Guard operates 12 wings of remotely piloted aircraft, including one in the Lone Star State, that fly overseas missions alongside their active counterparts, as well as providing many of the analysts that interpret real-time intelligence at key headquarters around the world. This year, NATO celebrated 25 years of Air Guard deployments to safeguard European skies. Right now, a Guard F-16 unit from Ohio is deploying to Estonia to help NATO safeguard European skies.
Our Guard and Reserve forces train to the same standards as active duty, and without them we would not be able to keep the homefront safe and win the fight overseas. Last fall was only the latest reminder.