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From Katrina to Irma: Airman driven by helping those in need

Staff Sgt. Rob Lummus, 15th Airlift Squadron loadmaster, helps medical professionals from Health and Human Services load baggage on a flight from Dulles International Airport, Washington D.C., to Orlando, Florida, Sept. 9. The mission supported HHS as they coordinate the federal medical and public health medical support to the state of Florida. Lummus' first exposure to a C-17 came when he was 17-years old volunteering during Hurricane Katrina.

Staff Sgt. Rob Lummus, 15th Airlift Squadron loadmaster, helps medical professionals from Health and Human Services load baggage on a flight from Dulles International Airport, Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Fla., Sept. 9, 2017. The mission supported HHS as they coordinate the federal medical and public health medical support to Florida. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Ryan DeCamp)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. (AFNS) -- Rob Lummus was 17 the first time he saw a C-17 Globemaster III.

Volunteering with his local church group to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he would watch them land, one after the other, as he worked at a distribution center not far from an airfield.

“I saw C-17s land every 15 minutes or so,” he said. “I thought it was pretty remarkable, and everyone would always look across the street and see they were doing what we were, but on a much larger scale.”

Today, Lummus is an Air Force staff sergeant, and one of many Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina Airmen bringing aid to victims of a hurricane.

But this time, he’s responding to a hurricane on a C-17 as a 15th Airlift Squadron loadmaster.

“I had no idea I’d be flying in those jets 12 years later,” he said.

Aircraft from JB Charleston and Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, delivered approximately 300 doctors, nurses and paramedics, among others, to Orlando, Florida, Sept. 9, 2017. The mission came at the request of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is handling the federal medical response to Hurricane Irma.

The mission to deliver the medical teams to Florida is one small piece of the overall response to Irma. Other agencies, like the Department of Defense and HHS, are working to support the state, which sends requests for federal assets through the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a federal coordinating hub.

Lummus’s team landed just before midnight in Orlando, dropped off the medical teams and left as the edge of the storm began reaching the area. After they took off, dark clouds filled the skies preventing pilots from seeing much beyond the nose of their C-17. Rain from the front of Hurricane Irma then began to pelt the windshield.

The skies finally cleared as they reached Florida’s northern border. It was a surreal reminder of what those medical teams were sent to do.

“I had no idea I would ever be doing anything like this, or be a part of a national effort to help out in hurricane relief,” Lummus said. “It’s been pretty amazing to watch all the different pieces of the puzzle with all the groups working together.”

Lynn Hayes and Steve Christina hail from the medical team known as New Hampshire One. Their group represented 35 of those on the HHS team.

They responded to Houston during Hurricane Harvey and left Texas a few days before being called to Florida. Despite the short turnaround, they were happy to help.

“It’s very gratifying,” said Hayes, Disaster Medical Assistance Team commander and a career nurse. “We’re here to serve whether in Texas or Florida. Helping like this is something that we really enjoy. It’s a passion for all of us. It’s a great way to serve our country.”

Lummus and other Airmen from JB Charleston’s 15th AS helped make that service possible. It wasn’t Lummus and company’s first interaction with the storm however, as they evacuated away from Hurricane Irma the day before.

Shortly after landing at Scott AFB, Illinois, they received word to join an effort providing aeromedical evacuation, airlift and contingency response to people in need from Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

From the ground 11 years ago, Lummus couldn’t see how what his church group was doing to help people was connected to what the Air Force did. Today, from 10,000 feet up, those connections are crystal clear.

“It feels awesome, it’s really special,” Lummus said. “I was talking with the HHS teams and they were from Oregon, Michigan, New York – all over the country, who flew in to Dulles (International Airport) that day to help. Being part of a group of guys responsible for getting them here tells me I’m making an impact by taking them where they need to be, and hopefully they’ll be able to do some awesome things on the ground,” Lummus said.