Tenacious trainers triumph in Katrina's wake

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
One of Keesler's most remarkable Hurricane Katrina success stories is the resurgence of the 81st Training Group. 

Training, Keesler's primary mission, has not only rebounded, but has flourished in the past year, said Col. Deborah Van De Ven, who took command of the 81st TRG a month after Katrina's landfall. 

"At our peak early in the year, we had more than 3,600 students," the colonel said. "We've been averaging 3,400 students, nonprior service and temporary duty, a 26 percent increase over the pre-Katrina average." 

While sheltered, some instructors conducted classes, often without benefit of electricity, computers and their usual training aids. This enabled about 300 initial-skills students to graduate or to progress in training to a point where they could move on to their new assignments. 

Early projections indicated it would take at least six months for Keesler's training mission to resume. Keesler officials initially were faced with reconstituting 107 resident courses being taught at the time the storm came ashore. 

However, three weeks later, the 332nd Training Squadron's enlisted aircrew and electronic principles courses, the 336th TRS' information management course, and the 81st Training Support Squadron's basic instructor course were up and running, and other classes weren't far behind. 

Walt Hack, 81st TRSS resource flight chief, said the aircrew instructors were an example of the dedication and commitment of Keesler trainers. 

"As soon as possible after the storm, they moved training simulators and classroom equipment from Garrard Hall's damaged second floor to an alternate location in Dolan Hall," Mr. Hack said. Their prompt action prevented most equipment damage and training disruption. 

"Not only did they resume training only three weeks after the storm, they even brought on a new merged course in October," he continued. "Now their mission has come full circle as they prepare to move to Lackland (Air Force Base, Texas) by year's end to join that center of excellence." 

Second Air Force took the lead in Keesler's training resumption. Air Education and Training Command officials formed a Tiger Team headed by Col. Susan Helms to work with the 81st TRG staff to deal with training issues and establish priorities in standing up 142 courses as determined by Air Staff. 

"The Tiger Team included representatives from all training wings," Colonel Van De Ven said. "Daily teleconferences became weekly teleconferences as things progressed, then we just met as needed. 

"We created a 'scorecard' that listed the courses in priority order with status details and student and instructor numbers," she remarked. "We published the last one May 2, with the assurance that Keesler was up and running and back on its own. 

"We're capable of teaching all of our courses now," the colonel added. "Some haven't been taught because the need isn't there yet, but we're ready." 

The 81st TRG staff took extraordinary actions to meet fiscal 2006 student production rates. After the storm, the number of staff members dropped by 10 percent as the student population continued to rise. 

The post-Katrina instructor force was augmented with people from other bases, including 19 air traffic control instructors, a radio communications systems trainer and 13 information management instructors. These people have returned home, but another 13 information managers will remain at Keesler up until mid-November to support the training mission. 

Keesler officials also sent instructors to Sheppard AFB, Texas; Altus AFB, Okla., and Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., to conduct training, and converted some courseware to mobile training team format and created more Web-based training options. 

"Air Staff allowed most students to graduate if they'd successfully completed 85 percent of the course," Colonel Van De Ven said. "The other 1,441 were directed to return to Keesler to complete their training." 

"It wasn't simple to open up seats for returning students," Mr. Hack said. "Things had to be synchronized.  It was a big challenge just getting classes up and running again for scheduled students, let alone to make room for those who needed to come back to finish their training at the precise learning point where they left off in the course." 

So far this year, 66 international students from 15 countries have trained at Keesler, with a current population of 40 students, which is close to the normal average of about 50 to 60 in-residence students.
Housing is still a big issue particularly for the TDY students who officially began returning to Keesler in January. 

"We turned over Connor Manor, one of our nonprior service student dorms, to house TDY students," Colonel Van De Ven said. "That means, as of Aug. 8, 435 initial-skills students had to be triple-bunked. They just came out of basic training so it's not a huge hardship, but it's not the standard we want and not very conducive to studying. 

"We're really anxious to get Connor Manor back," she said. "But off-base lodging still hasn't come back sufficiently to support our needs." 

Repairs to academic facilities and student dorms have been completed, except for minor work at Cody Hall. The cost topped $5 million for training buildings and almost $800,000 for dorms. 

The 81st TRG also has given up space in some of its buildings to accommodate people from the 81st Mission Support Group who were relocated from other damaged facilities. 

Old Cody Hall, a vacated training facility awaiting demolition, accommodates many of the support services formerly housed in Sablich Center. The 81st Security Forces Squadron is headquartered in a dormitory slated for demolition next year, until repairs to its building are completed. The legal office and 81st Comptroller Squadron are operating in the Levitow Training Support Facility.

Whether to shelter is a big issue facing 81st TRG leaders if and when another hurricane targets Keesler. 

"Based on timing and storm predictions, more often than not we're going to have to shelter," Colonel Van De Ven said. "Evacuating approximately 4,500 students by ground or air takes considerable time a storm may not provide. Our evacuation plan now calls for unity of command for our six training squadrons/ shelter commanders. We want to keep the integrity of each squadron either on Keesler or at their evacuation base for command and control, followed by the capability of continuing or standing up training. 

"At the same time, we understand mom and dad's perspective of 'What do you mean you left my son in harm's way during a storm? What were you thinking?'" 

Compared to last season, 81st TRG officials plan for more military instructors to be mission-essential and shelter or evacuate with their students. Any military instructor who has an active class at the time of a storm becomes mission-essential. 

As the 81st TRG's leadership has changed, there are fewer commanders in place with Katrina experience. Four of the seven squadrons received new leaders this summer. 

"Those who went through the hurricane together shared a special bond," Colonel Van De Ven said. "Six of the seven squadron commanders have dual roles as shelter commanders. Hopefully we won't have another hurricane bonding experience. 

"I've been so involved with Katrina after the fact that sometimes I feel like I went through the storm myself," she said. "When you talk to people about their experiences, you can empathize, but you can't truly appreciate what it was like.
"Most military people are accustomed to change and moving on, so there's always light at the end of the tunnel after something like Katrina," Colonel Van De Ven said. "But for our civilians who went through Katrina and are rebuilding, it's long-term. It's forever for them." 

Within the 81st TRG, of the 356 members still at Keesler who had significant damage to their houses, 67 are still repairing their homes. Mr. Hack said that "in addition to participating in community efforts, training group members have devoted more than 1,600 hours to assist their fellow coworkers in home cleanup and repair." 

Training group members also played a significant role in Keesler's humanitarian outreach program. Tech. Sgt. Julie Sargent, 332nd TRS, headed the base's humanitarian relief efforts for several months before returning to the classroom. 

Incoming students participated in cleanup efforts, construction and repair work and distributed supplies and stocked shelves at several community distribution centers. 

"Keesler seems to be leaps and bounds ahead of many surrounding communities in its recovery efforts," Colonel Van De Ven said. "We have some big advantages compared to off-base communities that must deal with a mix of public, private, residential and business properties; various bodies of regulation; and independent insurance companies. 

"At Keesler, our chain of command makes centralized decisions for the entire base. Our leadership sets priorities and provides the authority and resources to get things done."