219th RED HORSE headed to Puerto Rico to support Hurricane Maria relief efforts

Twenty-six members of the 219th RED HORSE Squadron are en route to Puerto Rico to assist with Hurricane Maria relief efforts for about 30 days.

The 219th is a component of the Montana Air National Guard and Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory.

The airmen will be operating near the capital city of San Juan and their troop commander on this trip is Maj. Mark Dehn, the unit’s operations director.

The 219th is one of many National Guard units nationwide that has Disaster Relief Bed-down Set, DRBS, kits and they have experience using the kit that can provide simple housing and other services for up to 150 people per DRBS.

During a natural disaster, the DRBS system can offer shelter and services to emergency responders. The 219th will also provide power generation and water purification for more than 300 emergency personnel working from the location.

The 219th has a DRBS assigned to the unit and its members have trained extensively with the system. Their kit will remain in Montana and serve as the main kit should anything happen in the Pacific Northwest since Washington sent their two kits to Puerto Rico, said Col. Rusty Vaira, the 219th commander. 

While in Puerto Rico, the 219th will be operating DRBS kits from the Ohio and New Hampshire National Guard. Those kits are being transported to Puerto Rico separately. If the 219th was taking their kit, Vaira said it would be a much larger troop unit that takes multiple C-130s and usually a C-17, plus significantly more troops.

The DRBS kits include latrines, showers, laundry, tents and water purification kits, Dehn said. It’s basically a “small, little town,” Dehn said.

It’s the first time the 219th is using the bed-down kits in a real world scenario, though they regularly train on the systems. The 219th hosted training for other National Guard units and federal agencies this summer at Malmstrom Air Force Base to ensure everyone was using and packing the DRBS kits properly and so that everything was done the same way. That allows for everyone to know what to expect when they unpack a system in a natural disaster situation, Vaira said.

Dehn said the kits were fielded around 2007 as a response to Hurricane Katrina. A few of the DRBS kits are currently being used in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Dehn said.

The word deployment is used loosely in conversation these days, but Vaira said technically this trip is a temporary duty for training. It’s not an activation by the governor or the federal government the Guardsmen will remain in Title 32 status, meaning they still fall under control of the governor, Vaira said.

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MANG put out the initial call last Monday for the assignment and on Tuesday, sent the final notice, giving airmen about 24 hours to report to the 120th Airlift Wing at Gore Hill.

Of the 26 airmen on the trip, 24 are traditional Guardsmen and the other two are full-time, including Dehn. Most have civilian jobs and had to coordinate with their employers so they could leave for 30 days, possibly longer depending on needs on the ground. Airmen on the trip and MANG officials all expressed their thanks to employers and families for allowing the airmen to serve fellow Americans in need.

The 219th airmen flew by C-130 to Savannah, Ga. where they’d pick up another airlift to Puerto Rico. The trip also counts as a training mission for the pilots, navigators, load masters and crew of the 120th.

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Twenty-six members of the 219th RED HORSE, a component of the Montana Air National Guard, left Great Falls on Oct. 11 headed for Puerto Rico to support hurricane relief efforts there. Photo: Senior Master Sgt. Eric Peterson/120th Airlift Wing

Dehn said they’ve been watching media reports and talking to contacts on the ground to prepare for conditions in Puerto Rico, but it will likely be a more austere environment than they’ve trained in previously. For some of the airmen, it will be their first time on a real world mission.

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Senior Airman Garrett Tucker is a pavements and equipment operator with the 219th and this is his first real world mission.

He said he was looking forward to being able to help out and that moments like this are why he joined the Guard in the first place. In September, Tucker hit his three-year mark with the 219th. He’s a Great Falls native and works in town.

219th RED HORSE support global operations in Slovenia

This year, the 219th has supported training missions in Israel, Slovenia, Alaska and across Montana, Vaira said.

“This time, we’re really impacting people,” Vaira said.