Helping home: Saipan Airman aids native island during typhoon recovery
ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam -- When Typhoon Soudelor struck the small island of Saipan recently, the tropical storm likely was a side note of the daily news headlines for many Americans.
For one of Andersen Air Force Base's own, however, the storm literally hit close to home.
Senior Airman Louie Lacsina, 36th Mobility Response Group air transportation specialist and Saipan-native, deployed along with five 36th Contingency Response Group wingmen to assist ongoing relief efforts on his home island.
Arriving Aug. 9 aboard an MH-60S Knighthawk of the U.S. Navy's Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron-25, the Airman said he was shocked by the devastation left behind by the storm.
Hundreds of island residents, including several friends, lost their homes.
"As a returning former resident, some places are just not recognizable anymore," he recalled his initial impression of the damages. "What looked like paradise just got flattened. Most of my family is fine and their houses are ok, but they are missing power and water and went without a good clean shower for a few days."
In the absence of electricity, Lacsina said many have to leave their windows open at night, which allows mosquitoes and other bothersome bugs to enter. Some friends completely lost the roofs of their houses. Meanwhile, electricity and water will take a while to be fully restored, Lacsina said.
"One family I know currently lives together in a single room, the only one with a functioning roof," he said. "It's pretty bad and sad to see, but I'm also glad that I'm here and able to help out."
As an aerial porter tasked with unloading equipment and supplies from aircraft, Lacsina is one of a select few Airmen chosen to serve as a rapid-response force to combat operations and humanitarian emergencies. Together with highly skilled security forces, engineering and medical specialists, they make up a team that is tailored for disaster relief -- ready to go anywhere in the world to establish airfield and base operations. Earlier this year, Lacsina and his wingmen rushed to support international earthquake recovery efforts in Nepal, where his team unloaded more than 200 aircraft.
"As the contingency response group, we go wherever help is needed -- with as little as a 12-hour notice," he said. "As an air transportation specialist, my job for the CRG is to provide transportation support and forklift loader support to aircraft to unload cargo and move it to its staging positions."
Together with units from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, the teams provided two Tunner 60K Aircraft Cargo Loaders, which provide high-lift support to reach aircraft that the local airport can't reach, and military-grade, adverse-terrain fork lifts.
"Currently the airport here has only one forklift in operation and it's much smaller than what is needed for these jobs, so we brought two large forklifts capable of loading 10,000 pounds each," Lascina said. "We bring these AT forklifts on missions like this because we don't know what we're going to encounter."
Before becoming an Airman, Lacsina grew up between palms and the waves of the West Pacific and calls the Saipan villages of San Antonio and Chalan Kiya home.
"I grew up outdoors, by the beach, sheltered by distance from the outside world," he recalled. "Saipan is a great place to grow up on. A lot of people call it paradise.
"When typhoons hit when I was young, it was a pretty exciting and scary time," he continued. "As an adult, I see how painful they can be for a small island like Saipan."
Deciding whether or not to join the Air Force after high school was an easy decision, Lacsina said. A curiosity for the world urged the young student to look for opportunities beyond the small U.S. commonwealth.
"It really was a group effort between my friends and me," he said. "We could either try to work our way through and potentially never leave the island, or join the military to gain experiences. We eventually decided together that we'd join the military."
So far, military assignments took Lacsina across the globe to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and Yokota Air Base, Japan.
"(Joining the military) has really paid off for me," he said. "I got to experience different things and went to different places in the world as part of my job. Growing up, I'd never have thought I'd eventually work with aircraft and now I work with different aircraft and different nations. It's a great experience."
While his immediate family now lives in Hawaii, aunts and uncles still reside on Saipan. Lacsina surprised them with his arrival to lighten the mood after the storm.
"Being stationed on Guam, I do have the opportunity to go back occasionally, but the most recent one isn't the way I wanted it to be," Lacsina said. "They were pretty happy to see me and knowing that I'm with the military also gave them the reassurance that there is a U.S. presence helping out on island."
For the Saipan recovery team, Lacsina's knowledge of the island infrastructure and its people has been a real mission asset, said Master Sgt. Corey Long, contingency response team chief with the 36th CRG.
"Having a Saipan native on the team is awesome," Long said. "Whether it's a local language barrier or directions, he's instrumental in that he knows the area."
Even if the airfield staff could unload all arriving supplies, local teams would get backlogged because they'd have to individually load things onto trucks, Long continued, making Lacsina an essential part of the team.
"We enable the crews to get supplies off the airplane, onto trucks and directly to the people who urgently need this help," he said. "The forklift driver is the key in this operation. Without his expertise these operations would stall or delay emergency aid.
"Lascina is highly proficient in his job," Long continued. "His job experience shows and what would take a new guy two hours, he gets done in a fraction of the time. That counts when we try to get essential aid to the people who need it most."
For the foreseeable future, the teams have their work cut out for them as many residents are still living without electricity and potable water.
"There is so much more to do," he said. "So much rebuilding remains to be done around the island. It's good to at least be home and help out. I joined the U.S. Air Force to help my country as a whole, but there is nothing better than coming home to do this. It's a good feeling."
(Joint Region Marianas Public Affairs contributed to this story)