STRATTON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.Y. -- Nearly two years after providing support in Puerto Rico following the devastation Hurricane Maria left, the relationship between the 109th Airlift Wing here and the 156th AW at Muñiz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico, has continued to grow. Airmen from the two Air Transportation Operation Centers have joined together for training opportunities and mission support.
Most recently, 13 Airmen here joined the 156th ATOC to facilitate the traffic of 11 missions, 188 passengers and 96 short tons of cargo during Vigilant Guard 2019 in March.
With many Airmen of the 156th AW deployed, Chief Master Sgt. Harry Capocalo, 156th ATO manager, was looking for Airmen to help support the exercise. He first brought up the idea to Chief Master Sgt. Mark Mann, 109th ATO manager, in November of 2017 when he and other 109th Airmen were in Puerto Rico to assist after Hurricane Maria. The two began planning the following year when it was confirmed that Muniz would be hosting Vigilant Guard.
“(We) discussed the possibility of joint training operations between members from his Air Transportation unit and the members from the 156th ATO,” Capocalo said. “We decided to use Vigilant Guard 2019 as the kick start for this operation.”
“Both our units are in the same FEMA Region, so it makes sense for us to work together, and it's great to see the two units have such a great working relationship,” Mann said. “When my folks went down for Vigilant Guard, they ended up working with some of the same 156th members they had met back when they were there for hurricane relief."
Vigilant Guard provides state National Guard headquarters and supporting units with an opportunity to improve command and control and operational relationships with civilian and military partners at the local, state, regional and national levels. It helps military units unify their efforts to support civilian authorities during emergency response in the event of a disaster.
“We were on site prior to the Army arriving so we could offload all of their equipment from the cargo planes that came,” said Master Sgt. Tom Hegney, 109th ATO. “We stayed until after they left. We saw them in, and we saw them out.”
“The members of the 109th verified flight documentations, conducted joint inspections, passenger processing, and aircraft loading, while always maintaining a high degree of professionalism and integrity,” Capocalo said. “The exercise and mission was accomplished for the work done between both units; however, it is important to highlight the team from the 109th and their dedication to mission success.”
Master Sgt. Kelly Littlejohn, 109th ATO, said the goal of the joint training was to create a liaison between the two units.
“If we had an emergency situation up here, (they) could send people up here to relieve us so that we could tend to our families,” she said. “And (Chief Capocalo) wants us to start coming there regularly to train with their folks so that if and when the next (hurricane) comes through, we can roll in and take over their mission so they can tend to their families.”
“Hurricane Maria taught us many things -- one was the need to develop better integrated teams among the Air Transportation specialty,” Capocalo said. “Thank you again to Chief Mann and the men and women of the 109th Air Transportation Operation.”