The Last Response
by TSgt. Brandon Boyd, 142nd Wing
Oregon Air National Guard
June 3, 2022
When one contemplates the military, thoughts of guns, marches, pilots, or other emblematic images come to mind.
Other supporting roles like logistics, bringing beans and bullets to the troops, possibly aircrew or administration also make sense. The individuals who fulfill these roles provide a logical extension to the day-to-day operations at the home front or while deployed into harm’s way.
There is, however, one unique role that seems grim but aligns with the ethos of the military: never leave anyone behind. Bringing solace to those who have faced loss and providing closure amidst a sea of grief are the defining functions of this detail.
Services Airmen play a pivotal role in helping military mortuary affairs, and these Air National Guard Airmen fulfill a specific role in supporting civilian members of our community in times of disaster as part of the Fatality Search and Recovery Team or FSRT. This team exists to provide services to those who have lost their lives.
A specialized group with expert-level training, members often join with the state medical examiner’s office to observe morgue operations, how remains should be collected and forensically processed, and viewing how autopsies are handled. This litmus test is coordinated to train Airmen before disaster strikes.
Members of the 142nd Wing's Fatality Search and Recovery Team (FSRT) in front of their work tent, while on mission in Albany, Oregon during the wildfire season of 2020. (Oregon Air National Guard 142nd Wing courtesy photo)
In the Oregon Air National Guard, the team can activate to provide support in a state capacity, assisting the governor in an emergency as part of the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP) or as a standalone group directly supporting the requesting agency(ies).
142nd Force Support Squadron commander, Lt. Col. Kelly Barton remarked on how the partnership between FSRT and civilian search and recovery teams enables a more efficient force.
“When we are activated, it is high stress. To know you will walk in and have rapport, it means it is much faster to get the mission started,” said Barton.
Members of the 142nd Wing FSRT are often asked to provide support in difficult circumstances. In the late summer of 2020, Oregon’s wildfires raged, causing unprecedented damage and loss of life across the state. During this time, the 142nd Wing FSRT was activated.
“We drove into Albany and it was all ash and smoke. Our airmen got out of the truck, built our tents and hustled…no task was too big or too small. Whatever they needed to do to get the job done, they did,” said Barton.
At a central location to multiple wildfires throughout the state, the team worked alongside the Oregon State Police, Oregon Health Authority, FEMA, and the state medical examiner’s office. As the fires worsened, some civilians in Southern Oregon were unable to leave in time.
“After the Phoenix, Oregon fire, we were planning for the possibility of hundreds of casualties across the state and thankfully, that was not the case,” said Barton.
The team was tasked with helping to receive and identify those that perished, serving at the request of the governor to help bring closure to the families of the deceased.
During the forensic process, Barton said they helped identify remains and confirm cause of death, collecting personal effects to assist with this closure.
Despite the difficult work, the relationships the team had formed helped strengthen the resolve of these Citizen Airmen.
“This group is not always nine-to-five in uniform, but the camaraderie and the close-knit nature of the team provides a sense of belonging,” said FSRT Officer in Charge (OIC), Capt. Miles Dodge.
Described as approachable and relatable, this isn’t a group seeking the limelight, but Dodge said they enjoy serving and supporting others and bringing a positive energy when circumstances seem overwhelming.
As they worked, the state and the wing brought chaplain and mental health support professionals to serve alongside the responders. The team found respite when meeting together in a tent, a safe space set up just beside the mobile morgue.
Capt. Angelica Hayes, former FSRT OIC, was activated during the wildfire season of 2020 and recalls the value the resiliency team brought to their fight.
“We debriefed and let people share at their comfort level. One person would share what they experienced, and others would share their own perspective or how they processed things,” said Hayes.
Sharing dinners together, playing games and discussing those difficult moments helped the team come together.
“It was a really supportive, trusting environment, where our folks could be vulnerable and personal,” said Hayes.
As the group finished up their two-week tasking and the wildfires began to scale back, the meaning of their work came into focus. The group had made an impact, not just to the community, but also to the professionals they worked with. State officials recognized with admiration the ‘never-stop’ work ethic of the FSRT team.
“Looking back, the impact of the mission keeps a lot of us fulfilled,” said Hayes. “We returned them to their families, giving them the closure that they deserved.”
WWhen the worst days come, this band of last responders brings dignity and respect to the members of our community. Although they often evade the spotlight of formal recognition, their legacy and work ethic showcases the essence of Oregonian identity.
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