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Double duty: Reservists handle Unitas and Hurricane Ivan

FLORIDA AND ALABAMA -- With tattered buildings and battered beaches, the Florida and Alabama coasts had the appearance of a war-torn country the morning of Sept. 16. 

For members of the 5th Special Operations Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., the sight of such devastation had become all too familiar in their two years of being deployed as part of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. But this time the massive damage wasn’t thousands of miles away but rather in their own back yards, not the result of war but a natural disaster named Hurricane Ivan.

But much like the unit rallied together only days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when they were called to active duty to help defend the nation, once again the 5th SOS came together. This time they rallied to help members of their squadron clean up and repair their homes that were ravaged by the storm.

“We got everybody together at the squadron to determine who had the most damage,” said Tech. Sgt. Chris Maradik, 5th SOS loadmaster. “They wanted an assessment from each section, and then we determined who needed the most help.”

One of the worst hit by the storm was Maj. Jeff Berry, 5th SOS pilot and mission commander for Unitas 2004. Like thousands of others living in the area, he evacuated to a safe location before the hurricane hit.

“It was pretty scary going back home,” Major Berry said, “because when we drove up, all the roads were under water. My house looked like it was on an island.”

After wading through knee-deep water, Major Berry discovered significant damage to his home. Part of his roof was ripped off, siding was off, and there was water in his house.

“It could have been catastrophic,” Major Berry said. “Forty miles down the road there were houses that were gone. It could have happened to us. At least the house was still standing, and I was happy to see it.”

However, reality quickly set in as the major faced the massive task of cleaning up the debris and repairing the damage.

“About 10 unit members came to the house and worked for four hours,” Major Berry said. “My shed was in my neighbor’s pool, and other people’s docks were in my yard. It was overwhelming to know the squadron was going to do something like that. It wasn’t expected. I thought it would be me and my wife doing all the work. It was touching.”

Although almost every member of the unit suffered some damage to their property, Major Berry said, about five people had major damage.

“Thanks to the leadership of the Reserve, it went great,” said Master Sgt. Eric Downing, 5th SOS life support. “They allowed us to go out and help. That meant a lot to everyone to be able to help. We went to one neighborhood and ended up helping everyone there.”

Just getting to the neighborhood, located in Pensacola, Fla., proved to be a difficult experience.

“It was like driving through a war zone,” said Tech. Sgt. Bill Bethke, 5th SOS radio operator. “There was old lumber and wood stacked six to eight feet high along the highway. We saw places that were so much worse off than ours.”

The storm struck the Gulf Coast about a month and a half before the 5th SOS was supposed to participate in Unitas 2004, a major exercise in Uruguay. In fact, as the storm made its way toward the coast, Maj. Dave Condit, 5th SOS navigator and one of the planners for Unitas, was in Uruguay getting ready for the exercise.

“Just prior to the hurricane, I was down there for a planning conference,” Major Condit said. “My wife was calling and keeping me posted and encouraging me to get home on time. And the other issue was if the hurricane wipes us out, would we be able to fulfill our plan for participation in the exercise?”

Major Condit made it home in time to evacuate his family and avoid the storm. He called a fellow Reservist and asked him to check on the Condits’ house.

“He told me everyone’s house in the neighborhood looked fine except for mine,” Major Condit said. “My house had a giant tree that crashed through the roof. When I returned home, I went to the squadron and offered to help others who were hit worse, but they told me to take care of my family first and the squadron would take care of everyone else.”

Because Majors Condit and Berry were two of the primary planners for the Uruguay trip, they had to balance their time between doing their jobs and fixing their homes. Both of them took time off to work on their houses.

“It was a week we needed to be planning, but our families came first,” Major Condit said. “What that meant was in the following weeks, we had to put in some long hours because a lot of prep work still had to be done. It made it more difficult to get all the details secured. Had we had that extra week, there were some additional things that could have been done to make things go smoother.”

Some members of the 5th SOS were forced to cancel their participation in the exercise in order to take care of their property, while others left with their homes still in need of repair.

“I pretty much left my house with a part of it exposed with blue tarp on it,” said Major Berry.

While he was in Uruguay, the major said it rained twice back home and got the family’s clothes wet. He said his wife can run the house without him, but “it’s rough on her.”

For Major Condit, getting a chance to represent the 5th SOS as the first Air Force unit to participate in Unitas was a driving force in his decision to go.

“My house is smashed, and I would probably have preferred to be at home,” Major Condit said. “However, this is a big deal, and the unit put a lot of work into it. So we decided to press forward and complete the mission.” «

(Sergeant Babin is assigned to the 926th Fighter Wing public affairs office at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, La. He deployed to Uruguay with members of the 5th SOS for the Unitas 04 exercise.)

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