News>Feature - Altus AFB volunteers provide support to Joplin, Mo.
Volunteers fly a tattered American flag from a street sign in Joplin, Mo., May 28, 2011. Sixteen Airmen from Altus Air Force Base delivered donations to Joplin, as well as helped search for survivors May 27-28. (Courtesy photo)
Volunteers from Altus Air Force Base and residents of Joplin, Mo., search through the rubble of the devastated city for survivors and personal belongings May 28, 2011. Joplin was hit by a tornado May 22. (Courtesy photo)
by Kymberli Yancey
97th Logistics Readiness Squadron
6/3/2011 - ALTUS AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The evening of May 22 seemed like any other for Staff Sgt. Jason Smith, 97th Logistics Readiness Squadron unit deployment manager, until he turned on the news and learned that a devastating tornado had demolished Joplin, Mo.
"I was just heartbroken after what I saw on television," Smith said. "Every day that passed, the death toll would rise and I felt that I just needed to do something."
The next day at work, Smith sent an e-mail to his squadron asking for donations and the response was overwhelming. The e-mail went around the installation and the donations began to rush in.
Senior Airman Jory White, 97th LRS fire truck maintenance apprentice, solicited more than $1,200 worth of items from the local Wal-Mart, such as food, water, pet food, and toiletries, which were only about one-third of the total donations.
Donations poured in from personnel and agencies on base, including the Airman's Attic, 97th Medical Group, 97th Operations Support Squadron, Army Air Force Exchange Service and many others. Additionally, people in Altus and surrounding communities, including Hobart, Granite, and Lone Wolf were quick to pitch in.
As the storage areas began overflowing, it became evident they were going to need more than a personal vehicle to transport the items to Joplin, so the Chapel sponsored them with government vehicle support, lending a flat-bed truck, a passenger van and a cargo van.
Staff Sgt. Dale Webb, 97th LRS NCO in charge of receiving, volunteered his personal vehicle for the remaining items and a group of 16 Airmen left for Joplin May 27.
The devastation in Joplin was jaw-dropping and no hotels were available, but Smith had arranged through a family member for the Altus AFB volunteers to lodge at the Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsburg, Kansas, which was about 30 minutes away.
"Without Pastor Ted Cook's help, we would have been sleeping on the ground or in our vehicles," Smith said. "He just opened the church up to us."
After a breakfast, the group loaded up and headed back to Joplin to begin working. They accompanied a canine search-and-rescue unit, prepared to offer assistance if survivors were located.
"I'm still in shock myself. I haven't seen this much destruction with all the wars I've been in. When I pulled up to my neighborhood, we thought everyone was dead and I just broke down crying," said Tom Botts, homeowner and Vietnam veteran.
Smith spotted an elderly couple digging through debris. The group asked if they could assist and learned the couple's daughter had died in the storm, so they were trying to recover pictures. The teams sifted through the rubble and were able to uncover several pictures and personal belongings for the family bringing smiles to their faces.
The Airmen then heard of several multi-story apartment complexes that had been leveled and search-and-rescue dogs were actively alerting, so the Altus group transitioned to assist in the search for survivors.
Smith found a dirty and worn American flag amidst the rubble, and along with a Seaman from Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., he hung it on a sign near the street - it seemed fitting.
The relief effort took many forms. The group helped homeowners clean up rubble and recover items and they helped an insurance agent uncover file cabinets that had been buried in debris, thus enabling him to properly pay claims.
"You guys are what is right with our country," said Jeremy Schambers, principal of Martin Luther Christian School. "For you guys to be here for us means a lot to me. We're proud and honored that you guys are here."
The group only spent two days in the devastated area, but the affects on them are lasting.