Airman Aids Home Island During Typhoon Recovery

Airmen unload a cargo plane on Saipan
U.S. airmen unload a cargo plane full of supplies to be distributed to residents of Saipan. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kristina D. Marshall)

ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam, August 17, 2015 — When Typhoon Soudelor struck the small island of Saipan Aug. 2, the tropical storm likely was a side note in the daily news headlines for many Americans.

But for one of Andersen Air Force Base’s own, the storm literally hit close to home.

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Louie Lacsina, an air transportation specialist with the 36th Mobility Response Group and a native of Saipan, deployed along with five 36th Contingency Response Group wingmen to assist ongoing relief efforts on his home island.

Arriving Aug. 9 aboard a U.S. Navy MH-60S Seahawk helicopter, Lacsina said he was shocked by the devastation left behind by the storm.

Hundreds of island residents lost their homes, including some of his friends, Lacsina said.

“As a returning former resident, some places are just not recognizable anymore,” he said. “What looked like paradise just got flattened. Most of my family is fine and their houses are ok, but they are missing power and water and went without a good clean shower for a few days.”

In the absence of electricity, Lacsina said many have to leave their windows open at night, which allows mosquitoes and other bugs to enter. Some friends completely lost the roofs of their houses, he said. Meanwhile, electricity and water will take a while to be fully restored, Lacsina said.

“One family I know currently lives together in a single room, the only one with a functioning roof,” he said. “It’s pretty bad and sad to see, but I’m also glad that I’m here and able to help out.”

Part of a Rapid Response Force

As an aerial porter tasked with unloading equipment and supplies from aircraft, Lacsina is one of a select few airmen chosen to serve as a rapid response force for combat operations and humanitarian emergencies. Together with highly skilled security forces, engineering and medical specialists, they make up a team that is tailored for disaster relief -- ready to go anywhere in the world to establish airfield and base operations. Earlier this year, Lacsina and his wingmen rushed to support international earthquake recovery efforts in Nepal, where his team unloaded more than 200 aircraft.

“As the contingency response group, we go wherever help is needed -- with as little as 12 hours’ notice,” he said. “As an air transportation specialist, my job ... is to provide transportation support and forklift loader support to aircraft to unload cargo and move it to its staging positions.”

Together with units from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, the teams provided two Tunner 60K Aircraft Cargo Loaders, which provide high-lift support to reach aircraft that the local airport can’t reach, and military-grade, adverse-terrain fork lifts.

“Currently the airport here has only one forklift in operation and it’s much smaller than what is needed for these jobs, so we brought two large forklifts capable of loading 10,000 pounds each,” Lascina said. “We bring these forklifts on missions like this because we don’t know what we’re going to encounter.”

Growing Up in Paradise

Before becoming an airman, Lacsina grew up between palms and the waves of the West Pacific and calls the Saipan villages of San Antonio and Chalan Kiya home.

“I grew up outdoors, by the beach, sheltered by distance from the outside world,” he recalled. “Saipan is a great place to grow up on. A lot of people call it paradise.

“When typhoons hit when I was young, it was a pretty exciting and scary time," he continued. "As an adult, I see how painful they can be for a small island like Saipan.”

Deciding whether or not to join the Air Force after high school was an easy decision, Lacsina said. A curiosity for the world urged the young student to look for opportunities beyond the small U.S. commonwealth.

“It really was a group effort between my friends and me,” he said. “We could either try to work our way through and potentially never leave the island, or join the military to gain experiences. We eventually decided together that we’d join the military.”

Lacsina’s military assignments have taken him across the globe, from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to Yokota Air Base, Japan.

“ has really paid off for me,” he said. “I got to experience different things and went to different places in the world as part of my job. Growing up, I’d never have thought I’d eventually work with aircraft and now I work with different aircraft and different nations. It’s a great experience.”

While his immediate family now lives in Hawaii, Lacsina still has aunts and uncles residing on Saipan. He surprised them with a visit to lighten the mood after the storm.

“Being stationed on Guam, I do have the opportunity to go back occasionally, but the most recent one isn’t the way I wanted it to be,” Lacsina said. “They were pretty happy to see me and knowing that I’m with the military also gave them the reassurance that there is a U.S. presence helping out on island.”

Local Knowledge an Asset

For the Saipan recovery team, Lacsina’s knowledge of the island infrastructure and its people has been a real mission asset, said Master Sgt. Corey Long, contingency response team chief with the 36th CRG.

“Having a Saipan native on the team is awesome,” Long said. “Whether it’s a local language barrier or directions, he’s instrumental in that he knows the area.”

Even if the airfield staff could unload all arriving supplies, local teams would get backlogged because they’d have to individually load things onto trucks, Long continued, making Lacsina an essential part of the team.

“We enable the crews to get supplies off the airplane, onto trucks and directly to the people who urgently need this help,” he said. “The forklift driver is the key in this operation. Without his expertise these operations would stall or delay emergency aid.

“Lascina is highly proficient in his job,” Long continued. “His job experience shows and what would take a new guy two hours, he gets done in a fraction of the time. That counts when we try to get essential aid to the people who need it most.”

For the foreseeable future, the teams have their work cut out for them as many residents are still living without electricity and potable water.

“There is so much more to do,” he said. “So much rebuilding remains to be done around the island. It’s good to at least be home and help out. I joined the U.S. to help my country as a whole, but there is nothing better than coming home to do this. It’s a good feeling.”

“They always say, ‘your home is where your heart is,’” Lacsina said.

Lacsina’s skills driving a 10-K All-terrain forklift were on display on the western side of the runway at Saipan International Airport Aug. 12. In concert with personnel from the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Ports Authority and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the team unloaded a cargo plane that arrived from Manila. In 1 hour and 6 minutes, they moved 45 pallets onto the tarmac for a customs inspection and then onto flatbed trucks for transport to a central distribution site.

As a result, 53,000 pounds of water, tents and cots were on their way to the people of Saipan.

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