By Master Sgt Patricia F. Moran, 145th Public Affairs
/ Published January 21, 2014
Charlotte, NC -- Deploying to help the U.S. Forest Service fight wild fires is nothing out of the ordinary for the North Carolina Air National Guard. As one of only four units in the United States that have C-130 aircraft capable of carrying the Modular Airborne Fire-Fighting Systems (MAFFS), these airmen are used to frequent deployments during the nation's wildfire season.
During an emotional ceremony, January 11, 2014, Master Sgt. Erin Wilber, Knowledge Operations Manager for the command support staff at the North Carolina National Guard, Joint Force Headquarters, in Raleigh, N.C., and Master Sgt. Tracie Rankin, 1st Shirt for the 145th Mission Support Group, were recognized for their contributions to the MAFFS 7 survivors as Family Liaison Officers. They each received the Air Force Commendation Medal, pinned on by their respective survivor, Chief Master Sgt. Andy Huneycutt and Master Sgt. Josh Marlowe.
On Saturday, June 30, 2012, nothing seemed out of the ordinary when the forest service requested the help of the 145th Airlift Wing. No one knew how dramatically so many lives were about to change. When news came the very next evening that MAFFS 7 carrying six crew members, had gone down, individuals immediately called to offer their help and support.
Four crew members perished in that crash and the two survivors were seriously injured. Chief Master Sgt. Huneycutt was flown to the burn unit in Chapel Hill, N.C. while Master Sgt. Josh Marlowe was taken to the closest hospital in Rapid City, N.D.
As painful a loss this is to our community, it pales in comparison to the grief the surviving loved ones experience. Special programs were established by the Air Force to help and provide assistance to both survivors and the families of the fallen heroes. Personal care and attention to the surviving family is a proud military tradition taken seriously by those in command. Thus the installation commander appoints a military volunteer, the Family Liaison Officer (FLO), as an official link between the Air Force and the families and survivors.
Master Sgt. Rankin was on location in Cheyenne, Wyoming after being activated with the 145th AW. "On the morning of July 2nd", said Rankin, "I was trying to process the tragedy of the night before, when I was told that I would be traveling from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Rapid City, South Dakota, a seven hour drive, to meet with the families of Huneycutt and Marlowe that would be arriving later that day."
"When I was told I would be Josh Marlowe's Family Liaison Officer," Rankin continued, "It was overwhelming to think about the duties that came along with that statement, and how little I knew at that moment...being the FLO for the Marlowe family was an opportunity I was honored to be asked to perform. It came with its own set of challenges and rewards that most never knew existed. I am a better Airman for having the experience as a FLO, and I am honored to have been selected. Relationships formed during this experience are ones that will last a lifetime; it's comforting to know I serve with those who would step up and do the same thing if the situation were reversed."
Master Sgt. Erin Wilber was ready to help out her military family in any way. After learning that Huneycutt was flown to UNC Chapel Hill hospital in Raleigh, Wilber, along with retired Brig. Gen. Iwan Clontz, drove to the hospital's burn unit to see Huneycutt. "On the way there I was asked to be the Family Liaison Officer for Chief Huneycutt," stated Wilber, "Thinking back to those days in the hospital the words healing and strength continues to resonate. I witnessed healing, physically, spiritually, and emotionally; from the doctors who needed Chief Huneycutt to remind them why they chose that line of work to the unit member, friends, and family that would come to the hospital broken-hearted and would leave with a glimmer of hope that we would get through this awful tragedy."
Wilber continued emotionally, "I witnessed strength that is awe inspiring, from Chief Huneycutt, his wife Beth, and son Cody, to the men and women that went right back to fight the fires a few weeks after MAFFS 7 crashed, and those families who stayed home knowing the risk...I will be forever humbled that God and the Huneycutts put their faith in me to be the Family Liaison Officer to Chief Andy Huneycutt."
Every family is very different. The FLO must have the ability to listen, have good emotional intuition, and endless inner strength. Most importantly, they must be the connection to the military to show the families that they and their loved ones will never be forgotten.