CHICOPEE — Fifty Westover Air Base reservists from across New England deployed to Florida this week, joining a massive effort to help the hurricane-ravaged state.
Most of them had nine hours to pack, tie up affairs at work and home, and report for the deployment to Homestead Air Reserve Base for what is expected to be a minimum of 30 days.
“I’m thrilled. This is what 90 percent of us, myself included, signed up to do when we joined the reserves,” Senior Master Sergeant Charles Carlin said Tuesday afternoon as he waited with a group of reservists preparing to join others who had flown out Monday night.
“It’s rewarding to give humanitarian aid in the United States,” said Carlin. “People don’t think of this when they think of the Air Force.”
For reservists who spend months training for such emergencies, the call to duty can be welcome.
“We spend so much time training how to respond to any eventuality whether in war or natural disaster,” said Carlin.
“This is it,” he said. “Being in the middle of this is why we joined.”
Master Sergeant Andrew Biscoe, acting chief of 439th Airlift Wing Public Affairs division at Westover, who was on base when reservists boarded the C-5M headed for Homestead on Monday evening, said the excitement was palpable.
“I could see it in people’s faces yesterday: energy, attitude, enthusiasm,” Biscoe said. “It’s awesome. It’s exciting to be a part of this.”
Carlin, who works full time as superintendent of the installation deployment readiness center at the 439th Airlift Wing at Westover, said the reservists were deployed by the federal government to work under instructions from FEMA.
He said their duties will be twofold.
The first is to staff and restore order to Homestead. The base was hit by Hurricane Irma, though not catastrophically so.
“It’s essentially abandoned right now because everybody who works there full time, for the next week or so, are going to be taking care of their personal lives,” said Carlin.
He said the base was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and had to be rebuilt. This time around the damage was not so bad, though it lost power and there are repairs to make. They also need to convert it from a fighter aircraft training base into a cargo base like Westover for the duration of the relief operations.
“It’s going to be the central hub of relief supplies going to southern Florida,” said Carlin.
Reservists will deliver supplies to hard-hit areas, assist with construction efforts, help clear debris, and take on other tasks necessary to get the state back on its feet.
Members of Westover’s Logistics Readiness Squadron in Chicopee normally have 72 hours to report for duty. This time around, the orders came so fast, the 40 reservists who left for Florida on Monday didn’t even know what their actual assignment was, according to Biscoe.
“They went out on verbal orders,” said Biscoe. “That’s a big deal.”
He was speaking Tuesday on the runway at Westover as Carlin and another 10 reservists awaited transport to Florida (which later was delayed to Wednesday morning).
Staff Sergeant Ryan Bator was among those who reported to Westover on Tuesday morning from his home in Manchester, Conn. He said he learned Sunday afternoon that it was looking like a group soon would be deployed, and then got a call at 3:45 p.m. Monday while driving home from work telling him to report in Tuesday morning. He called his boss at Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense in Connecticut, to let her know he wouldn’t be at work the next day for about a month. Earlier he’d given her a heads up it was coming.
He had to make personal arrangements as well; his wife had been scheduled for surgery the same day.
Even so, he said, he was excited to go.
“This is part of the reason I joined. I get to go help people who actually need it,” said Bator.
He said his wife called him Tuesday while he waited to take off let him know the surgery was successful. She, too, is a reservist, he said, so she understands the demands. In February, he had returned from a seven-month deployment in Kuwait.
Biscoe said Westover’s response to Hurricane Irma began Friday, when the base received orders that they’d need to load up cargo for FEMA over the weekend.
Some 25 reservists were called in Saturday and Sunday to spend hours loading up three C-17 transport planes with 120 tons of cargo, including FEMA trucks and supplies, headed for Puerto Rico.
Biscoe said Westover is well positioned to help FEMA with its massive cleanup job in Florida.