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Offutt services crew provides comfort to hurricane victims

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

LOUIS ARMSTRONG NEW ORLEANS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, La. (Sept. 05, 2005) -- Some Airmen may wear the uniform for quite a while before they truly learn what it means to be in the Air Force.

But for Airman 1st Class Keith Torgersen, it only took 10 months.

Airman Torgersen is a services specialist with the 55th Services Squadron. He, and about 20 of his peers from Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., arrived here Sept. 2 to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency's effort to evacuate civilians from New Orleans.

While Airman Torgersen didn't participate in the actual evacuation process, he provided much needed support to evacuees upon their arrival at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport here, a major staging area for moving evacuees out of the city.

"Mostly I was handing out water to people who needed it," he said.

Supporting victims of Hurricane Katrina was the first temporary duty of his short 10-month Air Force career. For him, it was an eye opener, and maybe even the moment when he first realized what it truly means to serve your country.

"It makes you feel like you're accomplishing something great," he said of the work he did.

Senior Airman Michele Gaines, 55th SVS, also helped out with handing out water. But her experience as a mother of two left her more suited to help out the many infants that came with their parents from the flooded city.

"We helped out with the babies," she said. "It was kind of sad, being a mom, to see kids who've had no food and water for a few days. It's kind of hard."

One particular child will probably stick in Airman Gaine's mind for some time. She is a prematurely born infant, a twin with a medical condition that had gone unattended for too long.

"They had one child that had a shunt, and the shunt was swollen," Airman Gaines said. "She and her family had been stuck on a bridge for a few days. They were medically evacuated out of here though. We helped out with that."

Airman Gaines said the girl's twin was fine.

Senior Airman Stacy Pitts, 55th SVS, also helped out with the babies she found waiting with their parents to evacuate the city.

"When I was helping out, mostly with the babies, I enjoyed doing that," she said. "When they bring the babies in they looked like they were dehydrated or needed diapers. That's what I did yesterday and the day before."

Airman Pitts has been in the Air Force a bit longer than her two team members, almost six years now, and was recently selected for promotion to staff sergeant. She has deployed twice to Southwest Asia so far, but that didn't prepare her for helping with the New Orleans evacuation.

"Just seeing these people sick and homeless and stuff, it wasn't a good sight," she said. "It was something I couldn't handle when I first got here, but you adjust to it."

The Airmen from the 55th SVS won't be handing out water for much longer, though. They were just helping out people of a larger team move an unusually large number of people through the airport, said Master Kem Redic, 55th SVS team leader. The services team does have another mission here.

"We will be setting up a base camp that will provide food service and lodging capability," he said. "Actually, part of our team is out doing a site survey (now.)"

The tent city will provide hot meals and lodging to the many Airmen who are helping out here. Sergeant Redic said he knows his crew is up to the task, because they performed so well when they first hit the ground, doing tasks they were never trained to do.

"When you are called upon and you roll into a situation like this, you just roll up your sleeves and jump in wherever you can," he said. "They are a real young crew here, but I couldn't be more proud of them. They really showed they are true professionals."