Kentucky Air Guardsmen return from Puerto Rico after processing 7.2 million pounds of aid for Hurricane Maria; operation continues

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Dale Greer
  • 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Thirty-five members of the Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Contingency Response Group returned home this morning, completing a three-week deployment to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they processed more than 7.2 million pounds of humanitarian aid for recovery operations following Hurricane Maria.

The Airmen, who arrived in San Juan on Sept. 23, were among the first U.S. military forces to deploy for the relief effort, said Col. Bruce Bancroft, the unit’s commander. They established an aerial port of debarkation at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport upon landing and began accepting military aircraft the next day, eventually downloading food, water, electric generators and other essential cargo from 268 aircraft.

The Airmen also processed 3,887 passengers arriving from a variety of agencies, including the Department of Defense and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to assist with relief efforts.

While the Kentucky Airmen are now home, the cargo mission will continue for the foreseeable future, Bancroft said. Primary responsibility for the aerial port has been turned over to the Puerto Rico Air National Guard.

“Standing up this aerial port of debarkation was an extremely important mission for us,” Bancroft said. “Like all units in the U.S. military, our group has an important combat role to play, but as National Guardsmen, we also specialize in providing humanitarian aid to the homeland. It has been very gratifying to know that our skills and capabilities are making a difference for the people of Puerto Rico.

“Now, that mission will be carried forward by the next group of Airmen from the Puerto Rico Air National Guard.”

The San Juan operation was the 123rd CRG’s second mobilization for hurricane relief this year. The unit also sent 43 Airmen to Texas on Aug. 29, where they established an aeromedical evacuation hub in Houston following Hurricane Harvey.

In the past six weeks, the Kentucky Air Guard has deployed more than 150 Airmen for relief operations following three major storms — Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Those Airmen include 18 members of the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, who rescued 333 residents stranded by flooding in Houston in the aftermath of Harvey.

Kentucky Air Guardsmen also were instrumental in the evacuation of more than 1,000 U.S. citizens from the Dutch Island of St. Maarten following Irma, providing air traffic control and flying passengers to safety in Puerto Rico aboard two Kentucky C-130 Hercules aircraft.

The Kentucky Air Guard still has 35 Airmen deployed for hurricane recovery operations, including seven who departed for Puerto Rico on Wednesday to staff a mobile field kitchen that can serve up to 4,000 hot meals a day. Other Kentucky Air National Guardsmen are providing airfield management in the U.S. Virgin Islands and aircraft maintenance in Savannah, Georgia, where the National Guard Bureau has established a major cargo hub to fly relief supplies from the mainland to the Caribbean.

Kentucky has contributed three of its C-130 aircraft for the Savannah-based operation, and currently has 21 aircrew and support personnel dedicated to the effort.

“This has been an unprecedented hurricane season, with three major back-to-back storms,” said Col. David Mounkes, commander of the 123rd Airlift Wing, the Kentucky Air Guard’s main operational unit. “I’m pleased to say that the response of our Airmen has been equally unprecedented. From saving lives in Texas to setting cargo records in Puerto Rico, our Airmen continue to step up for these extremely important missions.”