Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Air Guard in thick of Katrina rescues

By Michael Jones
Charleston Gazette-Mail
Sept. 3, 2005

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Two flight crews from the 130th Airlift Wing began the daunting task of evacuating refugees from flood-ravaged New Orleans to various cities Friday afternoon.

The West Virginia Air National Guard has sent three C-130 cargo planes and their crews to Louisiana to aid in the relief effort following Hurricane Katrina earlier this week.

Another four planes -- loaded with troops, Humvees and supplies -- are scheduled to leave Yeager Airport this morning to head to the disaster sites. Two other C-130s left Thursday.

As tension in Louisiana continues to mount concerning emergency aid in the region, crew members from each C-130 understand the survivors' concerns. Maj. Kevin Meagher has done several tours of duty in Iraq and helped a relief effort after an earthquake that struck Iran in early 2004.

"I think (the mission began) a couple of days too late, but I'm really glad we're able to do it," said Meagher, who was part of the first crew to leave. "There's not enough being done and we've been sitting around for a day-and-a-half now. The opportunity to do it is great, but it's just a little frustrating."

He and his team, which evacuated survivors early Thursday, were grounded Friday afternoon while the other two C-130s extracted scores of refugees. Meagher's feelings of a late response by the federal government are echoed by the sight of thousands of New Orleans residents scrambling for food, water and dry land.

Local police have been over-matched against gangs that have looted and ransacked the already crippled city. National Guard unites from numerous states have been called to restore order to the area.

Some in the 130th understand why relief efforts have been slow from the beginning.

"They didn't realize how bad the storm was going to be," Sgt. Julius Rembrandt said. "They didn't realize how many people didn't evacuate, so it's going to take a while to get everything in order. It looks like things are moving a little quicker (Friday)."

You with thing were a little more organized, bu tit's such a massive operation," Sgt. Dennis Heilmann said. "We're used to this sort of thing."

"I'm sure it's going to take time to get things organized so I think things will come together real quick," Sgt. Steve Dye said. "Hopefully soon."

The three crews from the 130th were waiting in San Antonio for their orders Friday afternoon, but where they will be today is anyone's guess. One crew left for New Orleans around 5 p.m. local time Friday to transport sick and injured survivors to Nashville, Tenn., and San Antonio overnight. Another plane was scheduled to leave at 9 p.m.

One of the major stumbling points in the evacuation process has been finding room for thousands of people who were washed from their homes. The Astrodome in Houston was already filled to capacity early Friday morning, leaving a San Antonio business complex as the best alternative.

Heilmann said the Guard unit is prepared to handle such a disaster, but is more accustomed to dealing with situations in West Virginia.

"It's not different from the missions we do," Heilmann said. "We've always done disaster relief, it's just different to come down here and do it."

All members of the Guard acknowledged they were pleased to help, even while receiving word of the mission on such short notice. Most crew members were not told of the operation untnil a few hours before they left. Maj. David Lester said the delays can be frustrating, but the Guard is designed to be flexible to conditions they cannot control.

"It gives us great personal satisfaction because when you see on the TV and you read in the newspaper about these folks who are suffering, to know anything we can do to help means a lot," he said.

"We're glad to be down here and do anything we can to help with the relief effort," said Rembrandt, who served 15 years as a firefighter before joining the Guard. "There are a lot of people that are desperate for any kind of help they can get."

The Air Guard in Charleston, which has seven planes available to fly to the disaster areas, will continues their mission indefinitely. The three crews already present are expected to stay until Monday, although their departure date is still in question.

The four planes leaving today are supposed to deliver 65 troops and other people and 16 Humvees to the disaster sites. Two of those planes will make additional trips.

Monday, August 30, 2010

C-130s from Yeager fly to flood zone

By Michael Jones
Charleston Daily Mail
Sept. 2, 2005

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Last Friday, airmen from Charleston's 130th Airlift Wing weren't sure what the future would hold for their base.

Today, they were hauling much-needed supplies and personnel to flood-ravaged New Orleans.
Ten members of the West Virginia Air National Guard flew out of Yeager Airport on Thursday afternoon on a mission that placed them on five different airstrips in 11 hours. Their relief effort to areas affected by Hurricane Katrina is expected to last four days.

The first C-130 flight from Charleston departed Wednesday. Officials expect more in the weeks ahead.

"This is exactly why we didn't want to lose our planes," Maj. David Lester said. "We can help in natural disasters.

"It's a perfect example of us doing what we're trained to do."

After a summer of uncertainty and anxiety for local guard members, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission granted the 130th a reprieve last week. The panel overruled defense planners who had recommended that the unit's planes be stationed at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina instead of Yeager.

Lester said the operation is similar to what would happen following a terrorist attack in the United States.

First Lt. Todd Perry, the aircraft's co-pilot, said the mission signifies the spirit of the 130th.

"You would have had the same amount of volunteers even if they would have taken away our base," he said. "We were immediately ready to go."

Most crew members weren't told they would be heading out until 10 a.m. Thursday. "I want to get to New Orleans before sunset and get out of there," Maj. Kyle Adams told them.

The crew loaded up their C-130 and lifted off at 2:10 p.m., only to return 30 minutes later because to a malfunctioning cockpit gauge. In less than an hour, they prepped a new plane and were in the air with Wright-Patterson Air Base in Dayton, Ohio, as their destination.

As the C-130 took on fuel, a Boeing 747 in a paint scheme resembling Air Force One pulled to within 300 feet. Lester said the jet is a mobile command post used to direct relief activities. Before anyone deplaned, 20 armed guards cleared a perimeter around the aircraft.

The smaller, prop-driven C-130 has two crew members designated to protect the plane at all costs. The security procedure, called "Raven," is customary in other regions of the world, but is rarely employed within the United States, said one of the onboard cops, Senior Master Sgt. Dennis Heilmann.The higher state of security for the Air National Guard reflects the escalating danger in New Orleans, where widespread looting has occurred.

"It's difficult to comprehend that something like this is happening in the U.S.," Lester said.

The original mission Thursday was to transport doctors and nurses to Louisiana. Those plans changed when the C-130 landed in Dayton at 4 p.m.

Along with two other C-130s from Mansfield, Ohio, the plane from Charleston was ordered to go to nearby Springfield, Ohio, to pick up armed troops. Carrying rifles, shotguns, and flak jackets, 41 Army National Guard soldiers boarded. They were flown directly to the New Orleans Naval Air Station, 10 miles from the city.

Sixty miles from the base, an eerie darkness crept across the night sky. The only glow coming out of the sunken city was lights from rescue helicopters.

Once the plane touched down, the soldiers quickly left the cramped cargo hold where they had spent the past three hours sleeping. They were whisked away and disappeared into the dark and muggy Louisiana night.

With their mission complete, the crew of the C-130 secured the plane and headed for San Antonio, Texas, arriving early this morning. They were scheduled to leave this afternoon for Louisiana, where they were to transport sick and injured refugees back to Texas.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Katrina

I became a newspaper reporter because I wanted a job that few other people could do. Little did I know that three weeks into my journalism career, I would be thrust into one of the biggest stories of my generation. We all remember the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast, and how it took days to get aid to the evacuees. But I was just a spectator until four days after the storm when my boss at the Daily Mail turned to me and asked if I wanted to accompany the 130th West Virginia Airlift Wing to New Orleans. I never entered the city, but spent much of the time at Louis Armstrong International Airport. There, I saw things that I could barely describe in words, especially for a rookie reporter.

The response to Katrina was shameful. Each and every level of government failed us during this unimaginable disaster. And I think it impacted us as a nation just as much as the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Rather than blaming a foreign murderer, we had to look at ourselves on how we failed our fellow Americans. The West Virginia airmen whom I accompanied had been to Iraq and Afghanistan, but they could not shake the chilling feeling that a disaster such as this was happening in America. With the national press covering the disaster, it is the perspective of these airmen and their ordeal that I wrote about.

Five years after Katrina, I want to once again share their stories from the week I spent in Louisiana and Texas. Each day, a new story from that award-winning series of my trip to the Gulf Coast will appear on this blog.

Sept. 2, 2005 - C-130s from Yeager fly to flood zone
Sept. 3, 2005 - Air Guard in thick of Katrina rescues
Sept. 4, 2005 - 'It's hard to put into words'
Sept. 5, 2005 - Even hardened C-130 crews jarred
Sept. 6, 2005 - C-130 crew returning after hurricane duty
Sept. 9, 2005 - Witness to calamity

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Problem solved

The speed of the Internet is truly impressive. Less than 22 hours after complaining about Verizon FiOS for problems with its billing service, a company official from New Jersey e-mailed me to say they were looking into the issue. I called him this morning and gave some of my account information that he needed to solve the problem.

By 3 p.m., I had received a call from a local Verizon representative, who said she was contacting the debt agency to have the charge removed. I appreciate that the company went to great lengths today to look into the issue, but I think the problem could have (and should have) been solved yesterday when I called the company billing department to get a clarification on what the $26.19 charge was for.

Say what you want about the internet, but it certainly is more efficient carrying a picket sign in front of a company’s headquarters.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

War is over?

NBC News reported Wednesday night that the last brigade of American combat troops has left Iraq. But how can that be true when 50,000 American military personnel remain in country as "support" for the Iraqi army?

It comes with some relief to know that military operations in Iraq will officially end at the end of the month. Still, it seems like that message is a smokescreen for the reality that we are still bogged down in a country that never wanted us there in the first place. More than seven years after "shock and awe" decapitated Saddam Hussein and his tyrannical government, we found it much more difficult to conquer a people that had never before tasted freedom.

Still, our previous president made it seem like this was the next logical step after 9/11 when the American people were conditioned to war. I was never one of those suckers who thought we should invade Iraq. But I do remember being a naive freshman in college when the world changed for America.

I'll never forget when my father and I attended the first regular season game at Heinz Field on Oct. 7, 2001. During halftime, the crowd roared after President Bush announced that the first bombs were being dropped on Afghanistan. While I knew this was the right action, I just looked at President Bush on the JumboTron and wondered when it would end and whether we would be safer. Little did I know that we'd also be dropping bombs elsewhere 17 months later.

Sadly, we have become a people that accepts war. Unlike the isolationist attitude that built our foreign policy before the world wars of the 20th century, we have become the key global decision-maker in what is right and wrong. As an American, I don't want that burden. There are an untold number of injustices in this world, and how are we do decide which dictator should fall?

The announcement that combat operations are over in Iraq (more than seven years after this foolish declaration) is a bittersweet moment. And I hope that future generations will look at this war -- along with its painful ramifications -- and decide that it's just not worth fighting for.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Stop the insanity

The 24-hours news cycle has an amazing way of churning out useless stories and making them appear important. This week, the "hot issue" is President Obama's comments on the proposed mosque near ground zero in New York City. He told reporters that he agreed with the local zoning decision that allowed a mosque to be built in Manhattan. And that's when things blew up.

Never mind the fact that prohibiting a mosque to be built on private property would be insanely unconstitutional, this story and Obama's reaction has absolutely no bearing on my life. Nor does it affect 99.9 percent of Americans. So why is this story being blown out of the water by pundits on cable news?

And just last week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put a story on its front page about a local man who tried to get his name legally changed to Boomer the Dog. This "furries" fanatic said most of his friends know him by that name, so he wanted to make it official. And this concerns me, how?

A few subscribers thought the same thing.

It's time for Americans to take a hard line against news organizations that decide to harp on minor stories rather than report accurately on actual news. The First Amendment gives reporters great latitude as they try to do their jobs properly... and I suggest they stop blowing that right on frivolous stories.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Good for him

I'm sure many of you have already heard about the story of the wayward JetBlue flight attendant who lost his cool when dealing with an unruly passenger, then promptly deplaned using the emergency slide. Although Steven Slater undoubtedly will lose his job for the fiasco, it appears most Americans are on his side. Many have the same opinion on his actions: "Good for him."

Flight attendants have to deal with all kinds of crap from ungrateful passengers every flight. It seems only natural that one of them would finally lose his/her cool in these unsavory situations. But not only did Slater exit the plane in an unusual way, he also grabbed a beer as he hit the slip-n-slide. I couldn't help but chuckle after reading the details of the blowup. According to The New York Times...

"On Monday, authorities said, a JetBlue attendant named Steven Slater snapped on the Kennedy International Airport tarmac. After a dispute with a passenger who stood to fetch his luggage too soon on a full flight just in from Pittsburgh, Mr. Slater, a career flight attendant, had had enough.

"He got on the intercom, let loose a string of invectives, pulled the lever that activates the emergency-evacuation chute and slid down -- making a dramatic exit not only from the plane but, one imagines, also his airline career. On his way out the door, he paused to grab a beer from the beverage cart. Then he ran to the employee parking lot and drove off, authorities said."

Does it get any better than that? The rest of the story can be found by clicking on this link.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A paralyzed body

It has at times been downright infuriating to watch how the federal government has "functioned" this past year. And there is no better example of a dysfunctional government branch than the U.S. Senate, a supposedly collegiate body whose members are acting more like frat boys. This is not to say the majority should jam every piece of legislation through without deliberation by both parties. But it's the simple procedures -- such as judicial appointments that have been stalled for 18 months -- that should not be held up by the anonymous dissent of a single senator. The New Yorker magazine published a lengthy story on the senate that is a must-read for anyone, regardless of their political leanings. It is quite long, but it will leave you baffled at how Senate procedures have been twisted into a pretzel.


THE EMPTY CHAMBER
By George Packer
Aug. 9, 2010

This is just one of those days when you want to throw up your hands and say, ‘What in the world are we doing?’” Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat, said.

“It’s unconscionable,” Carl Levin, the senior Democratic senator from Michigan, said. “The obstructionism has become mindless.”

The Senators were in the Capitol, sunk into armchairs before the marble fireplace in the press lounge, which is directly behind the Senate chamber. It was four-thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. McCaskill, in a matching maroon jacket and top, looked exasperated; Levin glowered over his spectacles.

“Also, it’s a dumb rule in itself,” McCaskill said. “It’s time we started looking at some of these rules.”

She was referring to Senate Rule XXVI, Paragraph 5, which requires unanimous consent for committees and subcommittees to hold hearings after two in the afternoon while the Senate is in session. Both Levin and McCaskill had scheduled hearings that day for two-thirty. Typically, it wouldn’t be difficult to get colleagues to waive the rule; a general and an admiral had flown halfway around the world to appear before Levin’s Armed Services Committee, and McCaskill’s Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight of the Homeland Security Committee was investigating the training of Afghan police. But this was March 24th, the day after President Barack Obama signed the health-care-reform bill, in a victory ceremony at the White House; it was also the day that the Senate was to vote on a reconciliation bill for health-care reform, approved by the House three nights earlier, which would retroactively remove the new law’s most embarrassing sweetheart deals and complete the yearlong process of passing universal health care. Republicans, who had fought the bill as a bloc, were in no mood to make things easy.

So, four hours earlier, when Levin went to the Senate floor and asked for consent to hold his hearing, Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, and a member of Levin’s committee, had refused. “I have no personal objection to continuing,” Burr said. But, he added, “There is objection on our side of the aisle. Therefore, I would have to object.”

Click here to read the entire story.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Same song, different dance

A year ago, I weighed in on Brett Favre's third retirement on this very blog. Now, just 50 weeks later, I think it's time to once again discuss this enigmatic NFL quarterback after he texted teammates telling them he was retiring... only to say yesterday that he is still considering playing. Shocking.

This is what I wrote on Aug. 18...

"Favre's actions show a lazy man who manipulates teams and the system to skip out on training camp. While it is not as overt, this is no different than a cocky wide receiver holding out of training camp until he gets that bigger contract. ... Although I love how he plays the game, I'm sick of Brett Favre's tired act. If you want to play, Brett, then don't announce that you are retired and confirm that decision a few days before training camp only to return three weeks before the start of the season."

While nothing has changed this time around, my beef is more with ESPN lapping up this nonsense and launching wall-to-wall coverage on the alleged retirement. A real news outlet would have reported the facts and allowed reporters to weave through the inconsistencies. In this case, we know Favre texted teammates about not being able to play for the upcoming season due to a bulky ankle. But the red flag should have been when head coach Brad Childress told reporters that he had not heard from Favre about any decision.

To compound this, Favre never came out and stated he was retiring (not that his own words could have been believed anyway). Instead, ESPN's so-called experts rattled off their favorite memories of the quarterback. But analyst Merrill Hoge wasn't fooled when he pointed out, "My favorite Favre moment probably will come this year. Come back, Brett!"

And as a buddy of mine appropriately wrote in a text message: "I won't believe it until the Vikes are eliminated from playoff contention."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Rooting for Red Zone

Steelers training camp has arrived and the stars are garnering all the publicity. But it's the unsigned rookies with whom yinzers most relate.

There's no better example than Isaac "Red Zone" Redman, who ripped apart the Steelers goal line defense last year during training camp, before plowing into the endzone for a few preseason touchdowns. "Red Zone" is what Pittsburgh is all about, and judging by my mother's allegiance to the undrafted running back from Bowie State, he certainly was the town's favorite Steeler in training camp. He didn't make the final cut in 2009, but he has a great chance to join the team this year with all of Yinzer Nation rooting for him.

So it was with great shock this week when kicker Jeff Reed complained about his $2.8 million franchise year contract. This is the same person who beat up a Sheetz towel dispenser in New Alexandria and later put up his dukes to police following tight end Matt Spaeth's splash play in a bar parking lot. Now, this liquored up kicker has the audacity to claim that "life isn't fair." Living in a city that lost its only industry just a generation ago, Reed should just look at the hypocyloids on his helmet to realize that, indeed, life isn't fair. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to leave Pittsburgh merely because they can't kick a pig intestine through a metal pole.

So we may cheer for Big Ben when he's chucks 70-yard touchdowns, and we salute Jeff Reed when he puts the game-winning kick through the uprights. But us yinzers love players like Hines Ward and Isaac Redman when they show heart for our team. They are what Pittsburgh is all about.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The promotion

Many have viewed the 2010 Census as a bloated waste of government expenses. But for those of who are unemployed, it is thankful refuge for both wages and purpose.

I began my work for the census in March as a "group quarters enumerator" who searched for the homeless under bridges and in soup kitchens. I then graduated to a NRFU-RI position where I made sure the enumerators weren't making stuff up when they went door-to-door. Believe it or not, some of those census takers were indeed frauds, so I had to clean up their mess by finding the real people who lived in the neighborhood. I took pride in that job, and made sure I did everything possible to get the facts right while saving the federal government money.

Apparently, my hard work paid off. Last week, I was hired as a crew leader for the final stage of the 2010 Census. I will now be leading a group of 10 other enumerators as we make the final push through this Constitutionally mandated phase of counting human beings. The crew leaders begin training for the final phase today before instructing our crew next week.

The census job has made me feel important. Now, this promotion to a managerial position has made me feel like I made a difference through those early (crazy) phases. It feels good to be rewarded for hard work in a thankless position. But most of all, it is important to add this supervisory position to my resume.

Regardless of how people feel about the federal government and the 2010 Census, I know this job has turned me into a better worker and prompted me to now be a manager.