After helping Haiti, guard members get warm welcome home

By Peter Smith • psmith@courier-journal.com • February 26, 2010

Airmen return to the Kentucky Air National Guard

Airmen return to the Kentucky Air National Guard from the Dominican Republic as part of the Haitian earthquake relief effort. The airmen operated a new air base. (By Sam Upshaw Jr., The Courier-Journal) Feb. 26, 2010

Four-year-old Jennifer Graves clutched tightly around her father’s neck as she greeted him after his five-week deployment in the Dominican Republic, where he was helping to bring in earthquake relief for Haiti.

“Daddy, you can come home today,” she told Staff Sgt. Raymond Graves, still in his combat fatigues after arriving home with 16 colleagues around noon Friday at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville.

The airmen, from the 123rd Contingency Readiness Group, converted a rarely used civilian airfield in the Dominican Republic into a base for overseas relief flights to alleviate the burden on the heavily usedPort-au-Prince airport.

“Even though I was away from my family, I knew we were helping families that were in more need than we were,” said Sgt. Graves, of Pekin, Ind.

About 45 airmen in total worked at the base, with the rest due home Monday.

The airmen are part of a unit that specializes in bringing an “airbase in a box,” said Col. Greg Nelson, commander of the group’s parent 123rd Airlift Wing.

“This is the first operational mission they’ve been on, and they didn’t miss a beat,” Nelson said. The group was formed in 2008 and has about 110 members in total.

Soon after their Jan. 22 arrival at the Maria Montez International Airport in Barahona, Dominican Republic, they had set up air-traffic control operations and equipment for unloading aircraft. Within two hours, they were bringing in flights.

They unloaded more than 640 tons of food, water, blood plasma and other supplies from more than 60 aircraft. The supplies were then shipped by truck to Haiti.

The need for the airbase ended after Haiti’s shipping ports were repaired to the point where they could handle relief cargo, according to Guard officials.

The airmen, accustomed to working in 90 degree temperatures in Haiti, arrived on a C-130 aircraft after a one-day layover in Florida to temperatures in the 30s on the windswept airbase in Louisville.

“I see a lot of sun tans here,” Maj. Gen. Edward W. Tonini, adjutant general for Kentucky, quipped as the troops gathered in a warm indoor meeting area for pizza and chips. “What’s the deal here?”

But he quickly turned serious, saying he was in Washington earlier this week and that the Guard got “nothing but pats on the shoulder” for their work. The fact that they set up “as quickly as you did and as aggressively as you did was noticed at the highest levels in Washington,” he said.

Master Sgt. James Nalley of Bullitt County, said the group took pride in quickly unloading planes and getting the materials en route to Haiti. He said he wished the group could have helped in the quake-stricken land itself, but “it felt real good” to be able to do what they could.

The Jan. 12 earthquake killed an estimated 230,000 Haitians, injured about as many and left a million homeless, according to The Associated Press.

Col. Warren Hurst, commander of the 123rd Contingency Readiness Group, said that roughly half the airmen had seen duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, while others may be deployed there.

“This is a more rewarding mission, because it’s disaster relief,” he said.

He noted that the group is also designed to work in domestic disasters or terrorist attacks within a 400-mile radius of Louisville.

The Kentucky Guard, Tonini said, is unique in having a wide range of emergency units, including search-and-rescue and medical response teams.

Several family members were on hand to greet the returning airmen.

“I’m so excited — I can’t stand it,” said Heather Keith of Frankfort, Ky., as she waited with her two young sons for the flight bringing home her husband, Staff Sgt. Kenneth Keith.

“I’m elated,” said Tracey Graves, Raymond’s wife, as she stood with Jennifer and held their 4-month-old baby, Stephanie. “They’re home safe.”

Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at (502) 582-4469.

Staff Sgt. Raymond Graves, right, kisses his daughter Jennifer, 4, at the Kentucky Air National Guard following his return from the Dominican Republic as part of the Haitian earthquake relief effort. The airmen operated a new air base. (By Sam Upshaw Jr., The Courier-Journal) Feb. 26, 2010

Staff Sgt. Kenneth Keith carries his two sons Landon, 3, left, and Austin, 5, as his wife Heather Keith, right, smiles at them following his return from the Dominican Republic as part of the Haitian earthquake relief effort. The airmen operated a new air base. (By Sam Upshaw Jr., The Courier-Journal) Feb. 26, 2010

Related Links:
123rd Airlift Wing, Louisville, KY – Kentucky Air Guardsmen return from Haiti relief mission
WHAS Radio, Louisville, KY – KY Guardsmen Back From Haiti Mission

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