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269th Airmen provide initial communications to U.S. Virgin Islands following historic hurricane destruction

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  • 269th Combat Communications Squadron

“There was just unbelievable devastation,” said Maj. Craig Conner, officer in charge of the six-person team from the 269th Combat Communications Squadron, Springfield, Ohio Air National Guard base, that arrived into St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, only 24 hours after Hurricane Irma blasted through the Caribbean.

“We arrived on the island right on the first full day of air field operations,” Conner explained. “We showed up to an airport that had all the windows blown out, every tile down, water damage and glass everywhere.”

The impact of Hurricane Irma was of record-breaking proportions, leaving nothing but rubble and destruction in its wake, tearing through homes, buildings and communication towers, leaving the island without basic utilities and communication.

“It was overwhelming at first,” said Conner. “You really have to focus on the mission at hand, and set your emotions aside.”

The first team of 269th CBCS Airmen returned from their 30+ day deployment to the island where they were able to restore vital communications that enabled multiple government agencies to work together providing immediate relief efforts in the aftermath of Irma. Since the initial team, the 269th CBCS has sent two additional teams of seven to continue operations.

Working alongside other agency partners, the Airmen were able to overcome what seemed to be an unending amount of challenges, including navigating heavy debris from the damage in order to help restore power and communication systems to the island.

“When our team arrived the island looked like an apocalyptic scene from a movie,” said Tech. Sgt. Zachary Ruoff, a member of the 269th CBCS. “Several agencies were on the ground working diligently to secure and conduct airfield operations, search and rescue, road clearing and disaster relief supply operations.”

Relief efforts were vulnerable to the second incoming storm, Hurricane Maria, but the 269th team was not discouraged by the harsh wind and rain. They decided to hunker down and carry out the mission in St. Thomas, despite the looming storm.

“Our primary role was to serve as the contingency network for the emergency operations center,” said Conner. “Our main location was the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA).”

The VITEMA was a central location for the Ohio National Guard and other agencies to work together to provide hurricane relief support.

“Our team was able to identify communication shortfalls around the island and either provide solutions by design or directly support additional mission sets without reducing capability to our primary customer,” said Ruoff.

The 269th CBCS supported the Department of Energy, the Virgin Island Tourism Agency, the American Red Cross and the New York State Patrol.

“It was beautiful to see each agency and how they conducted their business. Beautiful, in the fact that I knew they had trained for so long and so hard, and it was paying off at that exact moment; and not only did I get to witness it, but I was a part of it,” said Ruoff.

The 269th CBCS and the Dept. of Energy worked together to restore power and bring in water, fuel, new telephone poles and generators.

“Fifty percent of power was restored to St. Thomas, 300,000 gallons of gasoline, and 800,000 gallons of diesel were brought in,” said Conner of their contributions to the relief efforts while deployed.

The Airmen worked alongside local citizens and learned about the devastation they faced through their personal stories.

“The custodian we worked with said ‘What do I go home to? I can literally swim in my house,’” said Conner.

The progress of seeing lights turned back on, cell phone service restored and shops reopened gave Conner a sense of hope and pride.

 “The residents of the Virgin Islands are very resilient and they had such great attitudes,” said Conner.

“It really pulls on your heart strings when your customers hug you and tell you that they’ll miss you,” said Conner. “It was truly life-altering.”

 “The 269th has an incredible history of providing the best of the best and I’m honored to be a part of such an amazing squadron and family,” said Ruoff.

Since Hurricane Harvey, the Ohio National Guard has continued to answer the call to duty, deploying more than 300 Airmen and Soldiers to assist with relief efforts and recovery in Texas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Support has not only included the communication specialists of the 269th CBCS, but hundreds of Ohio Guard Airmen and Soldiers that specialize in transportation, network communications, medical services, aerial support, engineering, and command teams.