From East to West: Angels on a Wing
By Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 10, 2015
MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania -- Arriving blurry-eyed and nearly two days behind schedule, a team of over 30 U.S. Air Force Civil Engineers promptly disembark a KC-135 Stratotanker here, having traveled more than 13 hours nonstop from the Pacific Northwest.
For three of the members, arriving in Romania is the second part of their back-to-back expedition of providing Humanitarian Civic Assistance (HCA) in the form of construction repairs and renovations to nations once considered foes, now global security partners.
As the sun begins to set, Senior Airman Tyler O'Bryant collects his luggage and boards a transport bus for Mangalia, Romania. Among the larger group, his two comrades Senior Airman Zack Lewis and Tech. Sgt. Ramon Lopez, congregate in the same row of the bus as they all make the 45-minute trip to the job site.
The three self-proclaimed "Charlie's Angels," have been a tight trio for the past several months after spending nearly three weeks in Quang Ngai Province of Vietnam renovating schools and hospitals, as part of Operation Pacific Angel 15-3. They arrived in Romania with their fellow 142nd Fighter Wing Civil Engineers to renovate a hospital clinic as part of the unit's Deployment For Training (DFT) exercise.
Operation Pacific Angel is a United States Pacific Air Forces humanitarian mission sponsored by United States Pacific Command, which engages multiple nations in the Pacific region each year.
This year, more than 45 U.S. military members deployed to Vietnam to partner with local non-governmental organizations as well as host-nation military forces. They provided various functions that included health services and engineering civil outreach programs.
Under the National Guard's State Partnership Program, Vietnam and Bangladesh are partnered with Oregon under the United States Pacific Command. Romania, under the United States European Command State Partnership Program, is partnered with the state of Alabama, whose Airmen began the renovations of Pavilion C in Mangalia. It was up to the team from Oregon to complete the project.
"A big part of the reason we click so well together is that we bring three unique skill sets to any assignment," said O'Bryant. "We can walk into any project and start to recognize right away what needs to be done. Zack [Lewis] sees the walls and foundation, Ramon goes for the electrical work and I do the plumbing."
Much like their trip to Romania, when the three arrived in Quang Ngai, they began to tackle the most pressing needs first, taking stock in their civil engineer training.
The urgent need to make upgrades was imminently apparent to O'Bryant as he recalled the community sanitation issues in Vietnam first hand.
"There were people bathing in puddles and also going to the restroom in the same places," O'Bryant said.
Amenities most people take for granted, such as having a clean place to wash hands or designated gender-specific bathrooms, stood out to the team. Repairing the existing bathrooms included upgrades to the sinks, showers and urinals.
"The plumbing was pretty much nonexistent. There was a hole in the ground functioning as a toilet," he said. "When we got the water sources up, people were actually standing in line to use the restroom just to wash their hands."
As important as the water and sanitation improvements were, the upgrades made at the local schools garnered a great deal of consideration as well.
As a carpenter, Lewis spent a majority of his time rebuilding structural deficiencies.
"Right away we talked about items that would help make a big impact," he said. "The need for book shelves created storage and made the rooms more functional."
Not to be outdone by his amigos, Lopez found plenty of work installing fluorescent lighting while laying electrical wiring in the process.
"This was my second trip to Vietnam in the past several years, and on both trips the work involved upgrading schools and medical clinics," Lopez said.
By upgrading lighting systems and installing new fixtures, the residents of Quang Ngai benefited from the work, which increased local access to medical care. Lopez worked in a different capacity in Romania, where he helped rebuild a cancer clinic for the citizens of Mangalia.
"The cross training experience is a big part of these trips," said Lopez. "In Vietnam I worked in my career field, but here in Romania, I've been laying tile, painting, and whatever needs to happen to get the project done."
O'Bryant summarized the two trips saying that, "It is an amazing feeling; knowing that we provide these basic necessities that we [in the United States] take for granted, others see as it as a luxury."
As O'Bryant, Lewis and Lopez have crisscrossed the globe over the past several months their friendship has deepened while they have made positive impacts for strangers.
"We could have called ourselves the Three Musketeers but Charlie's Angels seems to fit our persona," O'Bryant recollected with a laugh. "During all of this work the three of us have become good friends."