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Air Guard dual mission: helping at home and abroad

Assigned to the 165th Airlift Wing, these Airmen demonstrate the Air National Guard’s dual mission of supporting state humanitarian missions at home and the federal missions abroad.

Master Sgt. Robbie Harrell (left) and Tech. Sgt. Michael Andrews, 737th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron loadmasters, prepare cargo for flight on a C-130 Hercules Oct. 10, 2017, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. The Airmen are from Savannah Air National Guard Base, Georgia and attached to the 158th Airlift Squadron which falls under the 165th Airlift Wing. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Louis Vega Jr.)

SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFNS) -- Not long ago, Airmen from the 158th Airlift Squadron, Savannah, Georgia, were delivering supplies with their fleet of C-130H Hercules to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. But just a few weeks later, they find themselves on the other side of the world in Southwest Asia supporting Operation Inherent Resolve.

Assigned to the 165th Airlift Wing, these Airmen demonstrate the Air National Guard’s dual mission of supporting state humanitarian missions at home and the federal missions abroad.

“We pick up where the [previous] units left off,” explained Lt. Col. Sheldon Wilson, 737th EAS commander. “We continue the fight through air-land and air drop missions, distinguished visitor moves and medical evacuation flights.”

Savannah served as a staging ground for disaster relief efforts. As Hurricane Maria intensified earlier this year, the Savannah ANG base was tapped to serve as a place to store food and water, shelter members of the military and corral aircraft ahead of anticipated humanitarian missions.

Around 75 percent of the squadron members supported the hurricane aftermath efforts in some capacity before deploying to Southwest Asia.

“They want to be in the fight,” said Wilson. “We have volunteers for our aircrews and support personnel and do not have to force people to deploy. They know the mission well and are always looking for opportunities to excel. I want to make sure those people are recognized for the service they give.”

The operation tempo and mission here is 24/7 and the Airmen witness first-hand the difference compared to home station, where flexibility allows for more control of their schedule. Furthermore, the opportunity to utilize systems and execute processes they normally train on back home raises their experience level.

“The biggest challenge is saying goodbye to family and friends,” said Master Sgt. Robbie Harrell, 737th EAS loadmaster. “But the experience and proficiency levels we gain during a deployment are worth (their) weight in gold.”

This is Harrell’s third deployment and he explained that the highlight of his job is seeing the direct impact their mission efforts have on the faces awaiting their arrival.

For one particular member of the team, the state mission really hit home.

“Most of my immediate family lives in Puerto Rico,” said Staff Sgt. Jonathan Santiagobarrera, 737th EAS flight engineer. “I was worried about my folks down there and felt empowered to be in a position to help them.”

Santiagobarrera was born and raised in Puerto Rico and joined the U.S. Air Force in 2000. During one of his trips home through relief efforts, he was able to hand deliver supplies to his mother and sister and spent a few minutes catching up with them before continuing on his next mission. It had been two years since he had been home last.

“The biggest challenge is not being able to do more,” continued Santiagobarrera. “It was gratifying to see the impact we had there and I plan to visit home after this deployment.”

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