From the Northland to Puerto Rico: 148th members helping with hurricane relief
For Master Sgt. Chris Simonson and Staff Sgt. Jessica Smart, the stuff of world news is outside the service window of what amounts to their food truck.
"We have green mountains — and the weather is like high 80s, low 90s and about 1,000 percent humidity," said Simonson, a Proctor letter carrier in his civilian life who was speaking by phone from Puerto Rico earlier this week. "It's like a warm summer day at home."
As part of an 11-member contingent from Duluth's 148th Fighter Wing and the 133rd Airlift Wing in Twin Cities, Simonson and Smart are deployed and helping the recovery effort on a United States island territory still fighting its way back from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
The group is crisscrossing the south side of Puerto Rico, dishing out hot meals to soldiers at places such as Camp Santiago and Fort Allen — places staffed by the Puerto Rico National Guard command and infused with reinforcements from guard bases across the United States.
Soldiers in the recovery effort had been forced into a steady diet of dehydrated meals known as MREs — meals, ready-to-eat — due to the power outages which affected most of Puerto Rico. Morale was dropping.
"They were unhappy," said Smart, a Cloquet resident and server at the Black Bear Casino restaurant back home. "We've been able to give them better, more well-rounded meals — rations with a mix of real fresh food. Their morale was able to pick back up."
The deployed airmen pack for 30 days. The local group worked through Thanksgiving but is expected home before Christmas. Of the 11 from Minnesota, nine are members of the 148th, one works at the Department of Motor Vehicles, two are college students fresh out of basic training and one is a jailer in the Twin Cities.
"We come from all walks of life," Simonson said. "I've got the best man from my wedding down here, too."
From the standpoint of glimpsing at active deployments, Puerto Rico, and its humanitarian mission, is an exception to a rule.
The 148th, through its spokeswoman Capt. Jodi Grayson, said it will not comment on any potential deployments due to what is known in the military as Operations Security — "safety of mission, members and family," explained Grayson.
At the 148th Fighter Wing's annual awards and retirement ceremony on Sunday, the emcee confirmed that there are members of the 148th spread "all over the world."
Additionally, the Duluth City Council is in the process of budgeting overtime in 2018 to cover for known deployments of some of the city's firefighters.
"We do have a great relationship with the city and they are very supportive of us and our missions," Grayson said. "We are certainly sympathetic to their budget as we all know how important a budget is. They have a plan and understand the importance of military obligations."
Given current high levels of unrest in the world, it's no secret deployments are here to stay. Guard and reserve units across the country have been experiencing deployments in greater frequency since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Retiring members of the 148th were commended over the weekend for having taken part in operations as far back as 2003's Operation Iraqi Freedom.
If Sunday's annual gathering proved anything, it's that readiness is a must.
"There is no mission that's impossible for the 148th," Brig. Gen. Sandra Best of the Minnesota National Guard in St. Paul told a full house of airmen at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. She cited the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East as "complicated geopolitical threats," and mentioned domestic terror, in calling on "full-spectrum readiness" — from regular forces on through to guard bases.
For a base that sent members to Japan, South Korea and Kuwait in 2016, it rang familiar.
Command Chief Master Sgt. Lisa Erikson of the 148th told the audience, "Ops tempo. I see this as our new normal."
Puerto Rico mission
A married father of three, Simonson has traveled a lot in his 16 years as a logistics expert with the 148th Bulldogs.
"I've been on a bunch of TDYs," he said, using Air Force speak for temporary duty yonder.
In bouncing around the countryside in Puerto Rico, he said evidence of the hurricane includes mudslides pushed off the road by bulldozers to make way for driving lanes.
"There are other places where honestly it looks like there's no damage," he said. "And in other places you can tell there's damage."
The main problem has been the power grid, he said. It made it hard to keep large quantities of food cold.
"We were running on generator power until just a few days ago when the kitchen and dorms all got hard-line power (back)," Simonson said.
About 75 days after the hurricane, nearly a third of the island remains without power, according to statistics from the government of Puerto Rico.
As of Monday, Simonson, Smart and their colleagues had dished out more than 5,000 meals from their Disaster Relief Mobile Kitchen Trailer.
"Honestly, the best way I can describe it is that it's close to the B&B (Market) wagon in Cloquet," Smart said of her workspace. Numbers fluctuate, she added, but they prepare boil-in-the-bag meals for an operation that could feed up to 1,000 people an hour.
The mission is funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Smart is performing her duties as a non-commissioned officer for the first time.
"It's great to have senior NCOs helping me learn to take on a role leading younger airmen," she said. "It's a great opportunity."
Plus, she said, "the scrambled eggs are not bad."