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Airmen evacuate hurricane victims

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

LOUIS ARMSTRONG NEW ORLEANS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, La. (Sept. 06, 2005) -- Three Airmen flew their first humanitarian mission together here as part of the effort to evacuate Hurricane Katrina victims.

After the storm hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, tens of thousands of residents there were left behind, trapped by the floodwater. They had little food and drinking water and no electricity. As part of an effort by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, military helicopters plucked those people out of the city and brought them here.

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Once here, evacuees were put on military flights out of the city. Their destinations varied, but at the end of their trip they would find food, water and a place to sleep.

First Lt. Neil Senkowski, a C-17 Globemaster III pilot from the 7th Airlift Squadron at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., was the co-pilot on one mission to take evacuees to Austin, Texas.

The lieutenant has been flying the C-17 for less than a year and recently returned from an overseas mission. He and his team were on crew rest when they got a call to participate in relief operations. It would be his first humanitarian mission. He said the crew jumped at the chance to participate.

"We were pretty excited to get this mission first of all," he said. "We had just gotten back from a regular mission, and normally we get days off when we come back. But we were pretty excited to get this mission, so we didn't worry about that."

For Airman 1st Class Jon Wessling, a loadmaster, it would also be his first humanitarian mission.

"I was excited and actually went down and asked if I could get on the flight to go down there," he said. "I felt really bad for them down there and wanted to go down and help out."

The crew left McChord on Sep. 3, bound first for Pope AFB, N.C., to pick up an Army unit, then to New Orleans to pick up evacuees. The C-17 boarded 141 passengers.

"It was a mixed crowd, everybody you could imagine," Airmen Wessling said. "There were young people, old people and sick people. There was one guy with an injury to his face with a bandage over his eye. There were dogs and cats and birds."

Staff Sgt. Ken Harp, a loadmaster with the 7th AS, has been in the Air Force for 11 years and had not been on a humanitarian mission before. He said he had prepared himself for what he thought he would see in New Orleans, but was taken aback by the reality of it.

"I was pretty much set mentally on it and expected it to resemble third-world countries," he said. "But some of it hit me harder when I saw the children and the old people. They are leaving a life, the only thing they have never known. I'm not a real religious person, but I tried to give them something to hold on to, I tried to tell them God will take care of them."

The C-17 is primarily a cargo plane for hauling trucks, tanks and other gear. In that configuration, it is not usually used for moving passengers. Many of the evacuees had to sit on the floor of the cargo hold. Loadmasters used waist restraints and tethers to secure passengers safely to the floor. The elderly were allowed to sit in seats, Sergeant Harp said.

"I was helping an (elderly) lady into her seat. I told her, 'Raise your arms, Grandma. I'm going to put this seatbelt on you,'" he said. "She looked at me and she goes, 'This is my first time ever flying.' She kind of giggled a little bit. But she giggled through her fear. She was definitely scared. That was another challenge, the fear. Some have never flown."

After the aircraft launched, Airmen Wessling stayed with the passengers and talked with them to keep them company.

"Some of them are happy we were there," he said. "Some angry we didn't come sooner. But a lot were just sad and were crying when we took off because they are leaving their home."

After arriving in Austin, the plane was met by a barrage of people willing to help the arrivals from New Orleans.

"The support there was crazy," Lieutenant Senkowski said. "You could tell when taxiing in they had hundreds of volunteers there. From the cockpit we could see people swarming the aircraft after we parked."

The Austin volunteers provided much-needed comfort to passengers as they deplaned, Sergeant Harp said.

"As soon as they got off the jet, there was water, snack bags and wheelchairs for the older people," he said. "We asked for seven wheelchairs, but I guarantee 30 showed up. I'd say about 200 people greeted these people as they got off the aircraft. They were excited to be somewhere where they would be taken care of."

Participating in a humanitarian mission is something Lieutenant Senkowski said he will probably always remember. Many Americans will watch the events in New Orleans unfold on their television, from the comfort of their home. But few will be able to do what they really want, the lieutenant said -- actually do something to help.

"This is one of those things where people say it's why you join the military," Lieutenant Senkowski said. "You grow up and you normally watch the news and can't do much about what's going on. That's how we were, at home or on missions, watching this happen. To be able to actually get home in time to do a mission is exactly what you want to be able to do, to help out."

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