American military families stationed in the United Kingdom stepped up to aid air crews charged with supporting the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Families from the RAF Mildenhall, Lakenheath, and Feltwell tri-base area organized efforts as the Afghanistan withdrawal deadline was looming. Arielle Evans, whose husband Maj. Kevin Evans commands the 727 Air Mobility Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, learned that crews who helped move Afghan evacuees between locations faced unique challenges.
“These crews were deployed with almost no notice and flying hundreds of evacuees through one of the most uncertain times of their lives. The passengers had next to nothing with them. Everyone was on edge,” said Evans. “It was clear there were some things we could rally our community to do to at least provide some comfort items to reduce the stress levels for passengers and the crews.”
Evans gathered a team of local military spouses, created a Facebook group for Tribase Relief Volunteers and put out calls for donations. There was a clear need for hygiene items, such as wipes, diapers, sanitary products, and hand sanitizer, as well as snacks, electrolyte drinks, blankets, and something to help entertain the children on the flights. The call for donations included small toys, crayons, coloring books, and zip-top baggies to make kits to hand out to child passengers.
“From the minute we put out the request for help, the local tri-base community showered us with support. It was such a blessing to see so many people step forward at a time of need,” Air Force spouse Monica Ferdinansen, a core volunteer, said. “Not only did the community support Operation In-Flight Relief, they also supplied donations for Operation Allies Refuge [in Ramstein] and supported deployed members on the ground locally with baked goods, home cooked meals and donated comfort items for airmen in the contingency dorms.”
The 100th Operations Group organized support for ground crews, maintenance, and port dawgs in addition to air crews, with meals and barbecues led by RAF Mildehnall’s 1st Sergeants’ Council and Chiefs Group, 100th OG, 100th Wing, and SOW leadership. In all, more than 300 home cooked meals were provided in one weekend to deployed service members.
Ferdinansen reported impressive numbers of donations forwarded to Air Force units transporting and processing evacuees. Operation In-Flight Relief served 3,329 passengers as of the beginning of September. In addition to sanitary necessities and snacks for those passengers, a total of 940 coloring kits were provided. The donation collection effort brought in more than 15,000 diapers, 190,300 wipes, thousands of articles of clothing and nearly 800 blankets, all in less than two weeks. Everything not used on flights was forwarded on to evacuees.
2nd Lt. Charlotte Foden-Vencil, on her first assignment, was designated as a point of contact for the volunteer group to communicate with the military unit transporting the items. It was her first opportunity to see the military family community in action.
“The flights marked the beginning of uncertainty for the evacuees. From all the feedback we’ve received, the items donated offered significant stress relief and comfort for adults and kids,” she said. “It is awesome to understand the direct impact of everyone’s efforts.”
“This relief was not only for the refugees but also the crew members that were risking their lives going above and beyond to make sure these families get to a safe place and can live without fear,” said Amber Campbell, a military spouse and volunteer coordinator. “Talking to these Airmen who are alongside these frightened people and hearing how much Operation In-Flight Relief has helped in calming and comforting these families … I mean, it’s like finding the gold at the end of a rainbow! To see the pictures of the colorings the kids did for the crew members brought tears to my eyes every time.”
Air Force spouse team member Nichole Conrad said the community response was incredible.
“Our military spouse volunteers were amazing, taking the initiative to take charge of a section and get the job done every day. Kits were packed up and shipped out the day the supplies rolled in. We had everything we needed to meet our goals,” she said.
Kara Starkweather, whose networking skills in the military spouse and local community helped drum up donations, adds “Having our donation items go almost immediately to evacuee passengers to provide them even a small measure of comfort during such a harrowing ordeal has been so rewarding.”
Hundreds of volunteers from multiple squadrons collected, sorted, and packed donations over the course of 13 days.
“This truly was a community effort,” said Evans. “I am so grateful and proud to being to the tri-base military family, which rose to support families in need and our airmen.”
To learn more about Operation In-Flight and future relief efforts, connect with the Tribase Relief Volunteers Facebook group.