By Master Sgt. Nick Choy, 142nd Fighter Wing/Public Affairs
/ Published February 19, 2019
Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore. -- HONOLULU, Hawaii — What started out as a typical summer training deployment for the men and women of the 142nd Medical Group (MDG), Oregon Air National Guard, turned anything but, when the Hawaiian islands were threatened by a category-5 hurricane, the week of Aug. 20, 2018.
The annual training for 43 Airmen of the 142nd Fighter Wing, scheduled for Aug. 18-31 on the island of Oahu, was comprised of doctors, nurses, medics, dental technicians, services personnel and medical administrative, public health and bio-environmental specialists.
The group was assigned to three geographically separated locations: Tripler Army Medical Center (TAMC), Joint-Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (JBPHH) and Schofield Barracks. They were joined by members of the 1984th U.S. Army Reserve Hospital as part of the Medical Facilities Annual Training (MFAT) mission.
However, as Hurricane Lane approached the islands from the eastern Pacific, TAMC officials determined the overall mission for the deployed Redhawks would change from that of training to one of support and backfill for their full-time medical staff.
According to U.S. Army Master Sergeant Gary Kondo, Reserve Affairs NCO at TAMC, the hospital still needed to operate on a 24/7 schedule, and due to the ongoing shortage of medical personnel, the timing of the annual training for Oregon’s medically trained Airmen turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“The hospital was able to utilize all 15 medics and 6 services personnel to backfill and support the hospital,” Kondo said. “Without these Airmen, the strain would have been much heavier on the current full-time personnel at TAMC.”
Edwynn Johnson, Reserve Component Specialist at TAMC, agreed that the timing could not have been more perfect.
“If the Oregon Airmen weren’t here, the Reserve Office would have needed a lot more time to request reservists to assist us,” Johnson said. “By that time, the storm would have been over.”
Oregon Air National Guard Col. Eric Schadler, 142nd Medical Group commander, worked closely with TAMC’s emergency operations officials on how best to utilize the deployed medical staff.
“The hospital asked about our ability and interest to help and I told them we were fully on board and would help in any way we could,” Schadler said.
By Wednesday, Aug. 22, it was determined that all medics would remain at the hospital until Aug. 25 to assist primary caregivers and medical providers. Non-essential full-time staff would leave the facility and return to their homes, while non-medical personnel from the 142nd Medical Group would shelter in place at their billeting location back at Pearl Harbor, about 15 minutes away.
With the memory of two devastating category-4 hurricanes that caused major damage — Iwa in 1982 and Iniki in 1993 — islanders began purchasing all available bottled water, batteries and canned goods. Storefronts in Waikiki were covered in plywood in anticipation of the storm’s expected landfall early Friday. Packing winds of 156 mph and gusts of 200 mph, Hurricane Lane was a storm to be taken seriously, emergency officials said.
Red Cross shelters were opened and staffed on Oahu. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell ordered Honolulu International Airport closed by 5 p.m. on Thursday, and Airport officials canceled inbound flights, while U.S. Coast Guard officials ordered Honolulu Harbor closed and requested two large container ships to leave the harbor to anchor off the coast in order to ride out the storm.
However, by the afternoon of Aug. 23, Hurricane Lane was downgraded to a category-3 storm, with wind gusts of 120 mph, and 15-20 inches of rain expected. The storm parked just south of the islands and began dumping massive amounts of rain across the state. Torrential rains caused flooding on the island of Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii, and eventually caused flooding on the islands of Kauai and Oahu.
While the group sequestered at the hotel watched updates on local television news stations and kept in touch with their colleagues at the hotel via text and cell phone, the real-world medical support continued at TAMC. It was determined by hospital officials that their emergency plan would remain in place until State Civil Defense gave the all clear.
Airman Aleec Coyle and her fellow Airmen from the 142nd Force Support Squadron Services, busied themselves prepping meals for hospital staff who would be staying at the facility over the next couple of days, but to also ease tensions for those non-essential hospital employees who were preparing to evacuate the facility ahead of the storm.
“I feel that those who live here locally felt a tension (as the storm approached) to protect their homes and prepare,” Coyle said. “That definitely trickled down to the rest of us because we felt like we needed to step up our game and help ease that tension.”
Coyle said the experience helped build morale and teamwork among her services personnel staff as they gained a new understanding of how their team worked together.
“I think (this experience) really helped a lot to learn everyone’s learning styles and to adapt to personality differences and how we get things done,” she added.
Thanks to the shift in mission from training to that of support, some of the Airmen from the 142nd MDG were able to perform on a much higher level during an actual emergency, building new skill sets and gaining real-world experience in the process.
Airman 1st Class Jillian Zalunardo, who worked in Labor & Delivery, said she was able to watch a birth — something she would never experience in any training scenario.
“It was really awesome,” she said. “It was the first time I got to see that in person. It was alarming, emotional and beautiful all at the same time seeing a new life come into the world.”
Also assisting with newborns and expectant mothers in the Labor & Delivery department was Staff Sgt. Anina Anderson, who said she was so moved by the experience, she asked her command if she could continue to work there while her fellow Airmen were rotated to other sections.
“I always wanted to be a Labor & Delivery nurse,” Anderson said. “In fact, after this trip, I plan to switch my career path into L&D nursing.”
While most on the island of Oahu had prepared for the worst, the storm conditions improved by late Thursday going into Friday, with Lane downgraded further to a category-2 and eventually to a tropical storm. Meanwhile, at TAMC, remaining staff members took note of the professional demeanor of their new, albeit temporary co-workers.
“TAMC staff appreciated the extra help, and appreciated how the Airmen embraced the mission and brought a new level of excitement to the real-world mission,” Kondo said. “It seemed as though their performance level increased and was stepped up a level, and this was definitely noticed by the hospital chain of command and department heads.”
Schadler heard directly from Army leadership and hospital administrators about the level of professionalism and care exercised by the deployed Oregon Airmen who rose to the occasion.
“The Army commented several times on our positive attitude, enthusiasm, and willingness to help,” Schadler said. “And the cool part is that of all the units they’ve had up here, they said we’ve been one of the best in terms of our willingness to help and how prepared we were, and getting our jobs done.”
For her part in the real-world mission, Zalunardo said she would never forget this experience.
“I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity. This opens up opportunities and possible career choices for me. Not only do I get to see what the medical technicians do, but this allows me to see what the doctors do — something I’m very interested in becoming,” she added.
For her part as a member of the Air National Guard, Anderson said this experience underscores the flexibility and overall readiness of all members of the National Guard.
“While it was a great experience overall providing medical care and switching to being mission ready for the storm, I think it speaks to the flexibility of the National Guard in being able to switch from one mission to another at a moment’s notice,” she said.