By Maj. Dale Greer, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 12, 2013
MASCOUTAH, Ill. -- When a natural disaster strikes the homeland, civilian authorities often find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the crisis. Power and communications may be knocked out, roads and airports are frequently impassable or inoperative, and food or water can be alarmingly scarce.
But the Kentucky Air Guard's 123rd Contingency Response Group was designed from the ground up to provide essential help during such emergencies, ensuring the rapid delivery of food, water, medicine and other assistance by airlift, even when local airports are closed, said Col. Mark Heiniger, the unit's commander.
On Thursday, those capabilities were verified by U.S. Transportation Command when the defense agency gave its stamp of approval to the 123rd, saying the unit was fully mission-capable to provide domestic disaster assistance to civilian authorities.
The verdict came at the end of a four-day earthquake-response exercise called Gateway Relief, during which the 123rd teamed up with the active-duty U.S. Army's 689th Rapid Port Opening Element from Fort Eustis, Va., to operate a Joint Task Force-Port Opening at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport here.
"The inspectors told us we knocked it out of the park and awarded us an overall grade of 'outstanding,' " said Heiniger, who also served as commander of the Joint Task Force-Port Opening. "They found no discrepancies in any of the five graded areas and said several of our functions were 'best seen to date.'
"That's a direct result of the hard work of our dedicated Airmen, but it's also an indicator of the exceptional performance turned in by our brothers and sisters in the 689th RPOE. The key to this mission was teamwork -- our motto going in was 'one team, one fight' -- and our Airmen and Soldiers lived it from the start."
A Joint Task Force-Port Opening, or JTF-PO, is a logistics hub that combines an Air Force Aerial Port of Debarkation with an Army trucking and distribution unit. The aerial port ensures the smooth flow of cargo and relief supplies into disaster areas by airlift, while the trucking unit facilitates final distribution over land, Heiniger explained.
The Army and Air Force units deploy with everything they need to operate, from all-terrain forklifts, satellite communications gear and sleeping quarters to aircraft mechanics, security forces and power-production specialists.
During Gateway Relief, Airmen from the 123rd offloaded cargo from inbound aircraft and passed it on to Soldiers from the 689th. The Soldiers then transferred the cargo to specialized pallets, called flat racks, and trucked it to a nearby cargo yard, called a forward node, where it was staged for final delivery to civilian authorities and relief agencies.
"We moved every piece of cargo the inspectors could throw at us, and we maintained a smooth flow of logistics from the airfield to the forward node at all times," said Lt. Col. Bruce Bancroft, director of the Joint Operations Center for Gateway Relief. "It was a seamless process, thanks to a high level of integration between the Army and Air Guard forces."
Army Capt. Charles Greene, commander of the 689th, also described the exercise as "seamless."
"Since we hit the ground, we were a purple force," he said. "Throughout the exercise, we had a synergy which resulted in a hugely successful mission. The Air Force and the Army came together as one."
Gateway Relief began Aug. 5 when a Joint Assessment Team of 11 personnel arrived via a Kentucky Air Guard C-130. Their initial task was to survey the notionally inoperative airport, determine whether the infrastructure could support large-scale relief operations, and provide a "go-no go" decision to U.S. Transportation Command within four hours of arrival.
The mission was based on a scenario in which two major earthquakes struck the New Madrid Seismic Zone, resulting in mass casualties and widespread destruction across Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Once the airfield was approved for use, more than 120 follow-on personnel began arriving from the 123rd and 689th, augmented by multiple planeloads of support equipment like tents, generators and communications gear, Bancroft said. By the end of the first day, the camp was fully operational, and relief supplies began flowing to the forward node.
From the very beginning, the 123rd's Airmen set new records for performance. The Joint Assessment Team, for example, was required to establish secure data communications with U.S. Transportation Command officials within four hours of landing, but the Kentucky team accomplished the task in just six minutes. In another case, Kentucky Air Guardsmen stood up a complex Small Package Initial Communications Element in only three hours and 10 minutes -- nearly nine hours sooner than required by USTRANSCOM.
"Both of those accomplishments were all-time records for a JTF-PO mission," Bancroft said.
Greene noted that he had never seen a JTF-PO stood up so efficiently, and he praised the 123rd for its professionalism.
"It was an honor to work with the Kentucky Air Guard," he said. "I've been an evaluator before, and I couldn't ask to work with better people. If we ever get the call to respond to a crisis, I would want to go out the door with the 123rd. This is what right looks like."
The Kentucky group is one of only eight contingency response units in the U.S. Air Force and is the first fully operational CRG in the Air National Guard. In 2010, the unit was selected to establish and operate one of two overseas airlift hubs supporting earthquake-recovery efforts in Haiti, directing the delivery of hundreds of tons of relief supplies into the Dominican Republic for subsequent trucking to Haiti.
In 2012, the 123rd was verified by U.S. Transportation Command to perform the JTF-PO mission overseas.