As Captain David Geaney and Staff Sergeant Heidi Agustin-Dominguez sat in Great Falls and watched Hurricane Harvey batter Texas, they knew they had to do something to help. Exactly what that something was or how they were going to pull it off wasn’t nearly as clear.
Both members of Malmstrom Air Force Base’s RED HORSE Squadron, Geaney and Agustin-Dominguez are no strangers to logistics. RED HORSE’s mission is to rapidly mobilize people and equipment to anywhere in the world, skills they knew could be put to good use in Texas helping an organization like the American Red Cross bring relief to those affected by the devastating storm.
“It was really hitting us hard, watching the news constantly and seeing people were suffering and not getting what they needed,” Geaney said. “Here we were with these skills and experience and not being able to help.”
“I just wanted to get out there,” Agustin-Dominguez said. “By truck or by flight, I didn’t care, I just wanted to get out there as quickly as possible to provide help to those people.
“He said ‘let’s do it’ and I said ‘let’s do it,’” Agustin-Dominguez said.
The two began hammering out a plan. They got the approval of their commander, assembled a team that included three other RED HORSE members – Billy Suai, Paul Brooks and Gregory Callaham – and began loading up Agustin-Dominguez’s truck. They packed their own cots and tents, unsure if they would have a place to stay when they arrived, and also squeezed in diapers, toiletries and other items donated by the community to deliver to those who lost everything.
There was no room to spare.
“That’s how we chose the size of the team,” Geaney joked. “It came down to how many we could fit in Heidi’s pickup.”
The five airmen hit the road, beginning a 29-hour journey to Houston, unsure what awaited them. They reached out to the American Red Cross before they left town but were still uncertain of where they would be staying and working when they arrived. Along the way, they touched base with the Red Cross again and soon their pie-in-the-sky plan was becoming reality.
“The entire drive down there, even the night before we left, we were like ‘is this really happening? Is this really going to work? This isn’t real,’” Geaney said.
Three days after the Great Falls team left Montana, they checked into a Red Cross warehouse and supply center in Houston. The RED HORSE team began helping with the day-to-day operations of that Red Cross facility, operating forklifts and helping supplies get in and out the door. A few days later that supply center closed, and they were assigned to a new Red Cross facility. This meant building a warehouse operation from the ground up.
On the first day in the new facility, 18 tractor-trailers arrived, full of supplies from the previous warehouse. Agustin-Dominguez became the warehouse manager, tasked with figuring out the layout of the new facility and finding the most efficient way to get Red Cross supplies in and out.
“Heidi is the real deal,” Geaney said. “She’s a natural leader who truly cares about everyone.”
That first day alone saw the team offload some 600 pallets of supplies while simultaneously getting 29 trucks out the door, delivering goods like water, trash bags, rakes and coolers throughout the surrounding communities.
“I’ve seen a lot of distribution operating in the Air Force,” Geaney said. “That is a pretty exceptional feat.”
With help from an AmeriCorps team and another Air Force squadron, both from Maryland, the RED HORSE team would continue to keep the Red Cross supply center operating at peak efficiency for the next three and a half weeks, loading and dispatching three trucks every 20 minutes – nothing short of amazing considering they were integrating three teams in extremely trying circumstances.
There were a lot of 12- to 14-hour days along the way.
“At the end of every day, as tired as we were, we just kept saying ‘I can’t believe we made this happen,’” Agustin-Dominguez said. “We picked the right team, we picked the right guys, and we’re here and we’re making a real difference.”
Both credit their counterparts from Maryland for making this streamlined operation possible.
“They were incredible,” Geaney said. “From the leader on down, I’ve never seen an operation move so smoothly … and I do this for a living.”
The team’s efforts did not go unnoticed. One day they got a surprise visit from Brad Kieserman, the American Red Cross vice president of disaster operations and logistics. Geaney said Kieserman was so impressed with their work he asked Geaney and Agustin-Dominguez to write up a report detailing their operation, saying it could be the basis for a new Red Cross supply center model going forward.
On the drive down to Texas, Agustin-Dominguez got a call from Tony Cardenas, a Congressman from her home state of California, thanking her for assembling the team.
“He said ‘I heard you were the only female on the team, so I guess we know who’s in charge,” Agustin-Dominguez joked.
“He and I grew up in the same district in the same city. It was an amazing conversation.”
Besides their warehouse duties, the team also went on “seek-and-serve missions,” driving vehicles throughout Texas neighborhoods, talking with residents and delivering Red Cross supplies.
“We would see people and say ‘Do you need water? We have bleach back here if you need it. Do you need work gloves?’” Geaney said. “We were sent to some of the hardest-hit communities and you were able to directly affect the individuals in those communities and see how grateful they are.”
Geaney and Agustin-Dominguez said it was these opportunities to interact with the people of Texas that will stick with them most.
“It was a pretty incredible experience,” he said. “People would come up to us and say ‘God, answered our prayers’ or ‘you just saved us.’”
Agustin-Dominguez remembers one Red Cross mission into a lower-income Galveston neighborhood in particular.
“These people were really struggling. They were suffering,” she said.
“You wouldn’t believe how thankful they were and how willing they were to help us unload the trucks,” she said.
“I will never forget the smiles on their faces. It made me feel like I was there for a reason.”
Geaney and Agustin-Dominguez agree their Houston experience is just the start of something bigger.
“It’s definitely the kind of thing, for at least Heidi and I, we would like to do with our lives – to help other people, to use the skills and experience we have to make a difference in the world,” he said.
“We’ll see where our paths take us, but this won’t be the last time.”
“Next time I will bring a bigger team,” Agustin-Dominguez said. “Honestly, if we could have gone straight to Puerto Rico and provided the same skills and experience we provided in Houston we would have done it in a heartbeat.
“One team, one fight, one mission. We made it happen.”
Since July, the American Red Cross of Montana and Idaho has deployed more than 70 volunteers and staff to provide wildfire relief in Montana and California and help those impacted by hurricanes in places like Texas, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands. If you are interested in becoming a Red Cross volunteer visit www.redcross.org or call 800-272-6668.