TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, CALIF. - In the past three months, Travis Air Force Base and its more than 12,000 total force Airmen have engaged heavily in response to five different natural disasters, occurring in quick succession, devastating victims across the country and around the globe.
After thousands of hours and countless resources spent on humanitarian response, one might expect the base to take a break, taper off for the holiday season and recharge for the mission demands that are bound to come in the new year.
Instead, the opposite is true.
While most others slept through the still-dark early morning hours of November 20, Airmen from the 60th Aerial Port Squadron loaded seven full-size school buses onto waiting C-5M Super Galaxies, putting into motion a dream that started more than two years ago on the bumpy dirt roads of Haiti.
It began with Claude Joseph, a Haitian native who now works as a labor organizer in Oakland, California. After visiting his homeland in 2015, he returned to California with fierce resolve to somehow help meet the overwhelming need he saw there: the need for Haitian children to receive an education.
“People end up having to use all the resources that they have to fix their homes or buy food instead of sending their kids to school,” said Joseph. “On top of parents having to pay to go to school, they also have to pay for their kids to be transported to school, because there is no transportation system.”
Instead of hopping on a bus, as most children in the United States do without second thought, children in Haiti walk between two and five miles on rural roads just to get to school each day. It is a routine that, if possible at all, is challenging to sustain, said Joseph.
Soon after his return, Joseph founded a nonprofit called the Those Angels foundation, based in Oakland. Its mission is to provide education, transportation and meals to economically disadvantaged children and orphans in Haiti, along with building schools and supporting educational, social and cultural needs there.
The nonprofit successfully built its first elementary school in 2015 - Ecole Communautaire Foyer Des Anges - but the pressing need for transportation to that school and others still lingered.
“I came back to the U.S. and I went on a manhunt for school buses,” said Joseph, laughing.
The Sacramento City Unified School District responded to Joseph’s search, selling him seven retired buses at a fraction of their typical cost. The next challenge was finding a way to transport thousands of pounds of machinery internationally.
That’s when the Air Force’s mobility Airmen and aircraft stepped in to help.
After a lengthy application and screening process, the buses were approved for transport through the Denton program to their final destination of Port Au Prince, Haiti. The Denton program is a Department of Defense-sanctioned humanitarian assistance transportation program that allows U.S.-based non-governmental sources to transport humanitarian aid at little or no cost to the donor. At the same time, the program helps fill extra space on military transport assets that are already engaged in missions.
“The buses are now going to be taken first-class style,” said Joseph, smiling.
After more than two weeks of inspections and other procedures to ensure the cargo’s airworthiness and safety during transport, the buses were ready to be loaded onto the waiting C-5 aircraft - the first step in completing Joseph’s two-year mission. It was a mission John “Buck” Buchanan, 60th APS civilian operations officer and the overseer for the first leg of the buses’ journey, felt personally connected to.
“One of the things that sold me (on the application) was when it said, ‘Can you imagine a young seven-year-old sitting there smiling going to school?’ And I said, ‘Yeah I can. Because I was that seven-year-old on one of those buses.’”
Travis Air Force Base and its fleet of strategic airlifters proved the ideal platform for the mission. Two C-5s and one C-17 Globemaster III simultaneously carried the load of buses and cargo destined for a separate mission, allowing for maximum load efficiency as the aircraft traveled first to Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, to drop off the buses and then on to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, to unload the rest of its cargo.
“Because of the size of the (C-5) airframe and the capability it gives us, it’s a national treasure,” said Buchanan. “This is a weapon platform for peace, for humanitarian (relief) and for deterrence. It (goes) from a humanitarian mission taking care of children to defending America and our allies, every day, seven days a week … Travis Air Force Base is sending that signal (saying), ‘We’re there. You’re not on your own. We’re there.’”
It was a dream come true for Joseph, who knows more than 340 Haitian students will benefit annually from the new transportation.
"I'm excited, I'm ecstatic, I don't even know how to describe it," he said. "Besides the economic relief on the parents, it's going to be relief on these kids … Seeing kids go to school, that’s the reward. That’s it.”
After the last C-5 took off from Travis with its cargo safely stowed, the mission seemed complete - but personally, emotionally, Travis Airmen remained deeply connected.
“That’s where my mission ends on paper, but not emotionally,” said Buchanan. “It ends when you know that bus is running down that rural road in Haiti and it’s got those young kids going to school getting an education, and they’re proud and they’re happy to have that opportunity. A lot of young people are not grateful to have the opportunity to go to school. Just to be on a bus instead of walking to school, we don’t know what that is in the United States.”
“All I want is for our (60th APS) troops to know that they did the good thing, they did the right thing,” he said. “And that’s what these young people right here at Travis do every day. (They) defend our nation, take care of life, do the best they can every day. If we can do a good thing for mankind every day, then that’s what we should do.”