Impossible dream becomes reality for one South American country

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Amelia Leonard
  • 439th Airlift Wing

In an age of high-visibility drones and cyber security, there is a side of the Air Force some don’t see: its humanitarian missions.


On Aug. 12, members of the Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, and active-duty components came together to transport 47.8 tons of cargo to South America for a humanitarian mission.


The cargo, one Pierce Pumper truck, two Pierce Lyons Trucks, and one Mack fire truck made their way from Wisconsin and New Jersey all the way down to volunteer firefighters in Nicaragua.

Master Sgt. Jorge Narvaez, a New Jersey Air National Guardsman with the 108th Security Forces Squadron, started the process to get the trucks sent to Nicaragua.


“I’ve always felt compelled to help; it fulfills me as a human being, trying to make a difference,” Narvaez said.


Narvaez, who is originally from Nicaragua, joined the Air National Guard in New Jersey in 1992 and is a member of the security forces commander’s support staff.


In 2014, Narvaez traveled to Nicaragua, and while there, visited a group of volunteer firefighters, the Bomberos de Nicaragua, located in Managua, Nicaragua.

“I saw that they were in dire need of serviceable fire trucks and equipment,” Narvaez said. He told the Nicaraguan firefighters that he would work hard to get them the equipment.

When he returned home, Narvaez talked to Ray Wadsworth, the former fire chief in Princeton, N.J., and was able to send firefighter’s coats, boots and hoses to Nicaragua. Although the Nicaraguan firefighters were grateful for the donated gear, they still needed new trucks.


In 2015, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration informed the Princeton firefighters that they would have to replace two of their fire trucks.

According to Narvaez, Wadsworth felt that one of the trucks could be donated. “We began to work together in doing all that was required to get the truck from the city.”

Narvaez sent a letter to Robert Gregory, Princeton’s director of emergency services, explaining how the retired truck could be put to good use in Latin America. Gregory agreed.


Then came the 17-ton question: how would they deliver the truck to Nicaragua? The answer involved the Air Force Reserve and the Denton Program.

Former U.S. Sen. Jeremiah Denton created the program as an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. More than 5.6 million pounds of humanitarian supplies have been sent to more than 50 countries since 1998, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.


The program is administered by the U.S. AID, the Department of State and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. It allows U.S. citizens and organizations to use military cargo aircraft to transport humanitarian goods to countries in need.


Narvaez made contact with officials at the U.S. Embassy in Managua and Air Force officials who would make the arrangements to transport the truck 3,700 miles.


The next step was to weigh and measure the truck with all its hoses and nozzles attached, and provide the Princeton Fire Dept. with instructions on how to prepare it for shipment. “We drained the water from the tank and drove the truck around until the gas tank was at least half empty,” said Kyle Rendall, Deputy Chief, Princeton Fire Dept.


In order for the flight to take place, Nicaraguan President, Daniel Ortega also had to sign off. After his approval, the only thing left was the airlift certification letter, which served as the approval letter.

The letter arrived on June 3rd and assigned the 439th Airlift Wing with airlifting the fire truck.

On Aug. 12, the truck from Princeton was loaded onto a Westover C-5 Galaxy at joint base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. It then flew down to Charleston AFB, S.C., where it picked up three more trucks which had been donated from the Wisconsin/Nicaraguan Partners of the Americas, Inc.


The aircraft made one stop at MacDill AFB, Fla., to go through a customs inspection and get fuel for the rest of the journey to South America.


“The mission was successful,” said Maj. Matthew Podkowka, the mission commander and member of the 337th Airlift Squadron at Westover. “We had a positive experience meeting the local representatives who were very impressed by the C-5 and its capabilities.”


In an effort to help improve U.S. relations with the Nicaraguan government, the United States Ambassador in Nicaragua, Laura Dogu, requested the pilots and air crew give a tour of the C-5 to the local representatives as a gesture of openness.


Master Sgt. Manual Reyes, a Westover loadmaster on the flight, served as the unofficial translator between the crew and Nicaraguans. “He was even able to provide interviews for their local news,” said Podkowka.

Although Narvaez was unable to join the flight to Nicaragua, he says that there is one thing he hopes fellow Airmen take away from this.

“I want Airmen to see this and know that they can do this as well,” Narvaez said. “There are many countries in the world that can use our help, and there are always things you can do to help people.”