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Especially now, we need a Head Count

While we are all adjusting and dealing with this new Covid 19 reality, I recall an experience I had almost 30 years ago, when I was a Major, and a helicopter pilot in the Air Force Reserve. There was a lesson I learned then, that has stuck with me since, that I thought might be especially important now.

In 1992, I was serving in the 301st ARRS, a large, 400 member, Air Rescue Squadron, based at Homestead Air Force Base, 20 miles south of Miami.   I’d been a member of the Squadron for 10 years then, and I was the Helicopter Flight Leader.

In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew slammed in to Florida: Homestead Air Force Base, and southern Dade County sustained a direct hit from that storm.

The day before the storm struck, we flew the squadron helicopters and HC-130 Tankers to locations in Central Florida.  The aircrews all returned to their homes and families.  Since we more than 70 miles north of Homestead AFB, we were well away from the storm.  However, the great majority of our squadron members lived in Southern Dade County, and they and their families were hit, and hit hard.

The day after the storm, the Squadron sent one of our helicopters to an airport near our home, and brought me, and others to a different airport in Dade County, Tamiami Airport, where they’d already set up forward operating tents, supplies and equipment for our operations, since Homestead Air Force Base and its facilities had been so devastated by the storm.

Upon my arrival, our Squadron Commanding Officer, took me aside, and handed me our Squadron’s Recall Roster, which provided personal location for each of our missing Squadron members.

He ordered me to take a helicopter, grab a crew from those folks who were already available, and  he said: “Jeff, Air Force Reserve Headquarters wants a Head Count.  We need to know if all are accounted for, and what their status is.”

At that time, we hadn’t heard from a large percentage of our Squadron members.

I hesitated for a moment, and responded:  “Boss, I can’t take a helicopter.  Trees are down, power lines are down, landmarks we might use to pinpoint locations are unrecognizable.  Instead, give me what Air Force vehicles are available, and we’ll put together a team and accomplish this on the surface.”

The Commander agreed, and we were flown to Homestead, and we obtained several undamaged/minimally damaged, official Air Force vehicles, and the effort began.

The damage in southern Dade County was so extensive, there were some areas we had difficulty getting to, even in an official Air Force vehicle. The process took several days to accomplish.

Each evening we’d drive up to Palm Beach County where we lived, we’d load the vehicle with  batteries, water, and other supplies our folks requested.  Early each morning we’d buy bags of ice, and we returned to Dade County to take the Head Count, and report the status of our entire Squadron.

Considering how bad the storm’s impact was, I’m still amazed, and very happy to report that we didn’t lose a single soul.

While the damage that various Squadron members sustained to their homes and property varied,  some were lucky to survive and their homes were virtually destroyed around them, roofs torn off, doors torn apart, walls knocked down.

One member, who’s home sustained the worst damage was a very senior Chief Master Sergeant.

After 10 years in the Squadron,  I knew he and his wife well.  I’d met their kids.  They were wonderful people.  When they saw us pulling up to their home, in an Air Force vehicle, in clean Flight Suits, there wasn’t a dry eye.

That Chief Master Sergeant, my friend, told me something that has stayed with me, and I want to share with you now.

He said, that it wasn’t the damage to the house or the vehicles that bothered him, it wasn’t the stress of potential civil unrest, that bothered him.

Instead, he told me that because the storm had so devastated their home, they’d lost precious memories: photographs, remembrances, of their marriage, their long and varied Air Force career, and memories of friends lost, in Vietnam and elsewhere.  That was the most significant loss to him, important to him.

We made sure to check on them every day, and you could see how meaningful it was to them, for the simple task of showing  up, in an official Air Force vehicle, in clean flight suits, just to check on how they were doing.

I imagine that relationships, memories and keepsakes of those relationships are extremely  important to each of us

Now…… we are going through this unprecedented situation.  We can’t say for sure when it will end, how it will end, or what things will be like when it ends.

No one is untouched by this, no one is exempt, and many are suffering, medically, emotionally, and financially.

What we can each do, is get, and keep, a Head Count.

Pick up the telephone, make a video call, with friends, past and present, co-workers, past and present. Keep doing so.

It’s simple, easy, it will make you and the folks you contact and re-contact feel just a little better.  That simple contact may make all the difference.

We all need a Head Count.

My best wishes to you and yours


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