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Reaching out by ‘reaching back’

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Do you remember studying strategic concepts in your Professional Military Education courses? Did you ever find yourself wondering, as you may have in your high school algebra course, 'When will I ever use this stuff'?" I'm certain three members of the 45th Security Forces Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base who deployed to Afghanistan this past June never thought they would come to embody a very important principle of modern warfare: reach back.

But that's exactly what Senior Airman Brandon Lape, and Airmen 1st Class Morgan Constantino and Gary Patterson did. What started out as a simple request for American flags, exploded into a full-blown support operation.

When you think of reach back, you may think of the TRANSCOM commander coordinating massive airlift with a combatant commander in Iraq or Afghanistan. You might think of an Air Force general in a forward area telling someone back in the U.S. to put a Hellfire missile on a Predator surveillance aircraft. How about a couple of Security Forces Airmen wanting to do something nice for wounded troops?

Prior to Airman Lape's deployment, Ted Whitlock, Chairman of the Space Coast Chapter of the Air Force Security Police Association (AFSPA), received an email from the young security forces troop asking for some help for a local Air Force member assigned to the 45th Medical Group who was suffering from stomach cancer. His mother was in town to be with her son and the expenses were daunting. Ted sent out a request to his local network of supporters that included the folks at the Brevard County Veterans Memorial Center. In short order, the VMC cut a check to the family for $2,000.

Shortly thereafter, Airman Lape deployed to Afghanistan. Within a few days, he made his first request - flags to be given to wounded veterans. The VMC stepped up to quickly fill that order. OPERATION "Flags for Wounded Warriors" was originally started by Airman Cody Goodnight and Staff Sergeants Franklin Nutter and Matthew Campbell with the 72nd Security Forces Squadron out of Tinker AFB, Okla. They were on a Fly-Away Security Team (FAST) mission bringing two injured Marines back to the base when the pair unexpectedly decided to present their personal flags to them in appreciation for their sacrifice. When Goodnight and Nutter redeployed in September, the 45th troops wanted to continue the effort.

Airman Lape and his buddies would visit wounded U.S. personnel when they arrived at the base hospital and present them with a small, folded American flag, complete with the reading of a certificate praising their sacrifice. They also received a "Grateful American" coin, phone card, and a get well card.

At first, Airman Lape was apprehensive.

"I thought they could reject the gesture because they were wounded", he said. To his surprise and relief, however, that wasn't the case.

"Everyone was really appreciative; one G.I. even cried saying it was the nicest thing anyone ever did for him."

As the 45th cops spent more and more time in the base hospital, they began to notice that the wounded, having usually come straight from the field, arrived with just the uniforms on their backs. Their uniforms, if not already ruined in the action that got them wounded, were usually destroyed in the process of saving life and limb. Airman Lape made his request through the AFSPA network and it again found its way to the VMC, specifically a husband and wife volunteer team, Maury and Emma Meisner. Maury, a Korean War Veteran and retired Industrial Engineer, has been a VMC volunteer for the last ten years. Emma spent 40 years as an accountant and has applied her skills as the VMC's bookkeeper for the last six years. Over the ensuing three months, the Meisner's would spearhead the effort to fill the needs identified by Airman Lape and his team.

Airman Lape and company then made requests back to the Meisners for toiletries, pillows, blankets, socks, phone cards and other items. The boxes were soon arriving brimming with supplies.

At the end of the rotation, a mere three months from when it began, the Meisners' said they shipped approximately 800 pounds of items to Afghanistan. Although the dollar amount is hard to judge, it's clear it was a lot, easily into the thousands of dollars. The money, though, is not the point. The important part is the dramatic impact a handful of forward thinking Airmen, backed by a robust and dedicated support system, can have on people's lives. It hammers home the irreplaceable value of Ted, Maury, Emma, and all Americans at home who answer the call to support our troops.

At the end of the day, you may not be able to remember a single algebraic equation. You may not be able to recite the principles of war or the tenets of Airpower from memory, but remember this: no matter where you are or what you do, you can make a difference. A little reach out, some reach back and you can change your world (and someone else's) for the better.