Col Leslie Maher Recaps Being on
the Front Lines of

Hurricanes Matthew and Maria

By MS. KIM KNIGHT, Staff Writer

Hurricane season, which officially runs from June 1 to November 30, ends soon. Most who have served on the “front lines” of hurricane relief say it is something they will always remember. Indeed, it is the favorite part of Col Leslie A. Maher’s career, which started 30-plus years ago in aircraft maintenance and currently finds her commanding the 375th Air Mobility Wing at Scott Air Force Base. The in-between years included training or serving across America and internationally.

Of all her assignments—including one as military liaison between the United States and Japan—her favorite was leading hurricane relief teams as the deputy and commander of the 621st Contingency Response Group, specifically after Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti in 2016 and Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.

“It is the most gratifying work,” Maher recalled. “I love doing whatever the military sends me to do, but I felt honored to be part of a team that helped fellow Americans in Puerto Rico after Maria. It was also an honor to assist in Haiti, as we have tried so hard to get them out of the red since their big earthquake in 2010.”

Delivering food to victims and making sure they received medical care came with great danger in Haiti. For starters, air traffic was somewhat of a nightmare. The international airport there, which was a makeshift refugee camp during the earthquake six years before, had only eight gates. Plus, it is a foreign country, so U.S. military couldn’t just barge in and take over the airspace and the airport—even to help. Instead, it was important to work with the citizens as they worked to help themselves.

“We brought in helicopters that included MB-22s, HH-53s, CH-47s, and HH-60s,” Maher explained. “Plus, we needed to let commercial flights continue to help evacuation efforts or deliver supplies, and that often meant 747s.”

The skies buzzed with Marines, Navy, Army, and Air Force traffic, as well as Coast Guard, Ministry Of Defense, United Nations, the media, and more. Maher said the airport went from 20-30 operations a day to well over 200 a day and juggling all of the 747s, C-17s, and helicopters was tricky. The Haitians were in charge, and her airfield operations officer was the go-between for multiple organizations. One was the air traffic control tower, which she described as a “temporary” FEMA Winnebago full of old equipment and placed atop a building after the 2010 earthquake. Another agency controlled ground movement at the airport, and there was an airfield manager.

“When possible, we put safety observers with the Haitian agencies,” she said. “They were very receptive and didn’t shut us out if we stayed humble and modest. I was thankful my team had the right personalities for the situation. During one especially close call, we were trying to get a commercial airliner out to make room for a 747, and I had a C-17 holding that was bringing in more military. Meanwhile, two helicopters needed in because they had delivered supplies and were low on fuel, and six other helicopters were attempting to get in. It was kind of like a 3D chess game, and sometimes the Haitians didn’t see a situation developing because their eye was on a different chess piece.”

Maher admits that she doesn’t know exactly how close it was that day, but she knew the helicopters with low fuel urgently needed to be on the ground, where they would refuel, load more supplies, and go again.

Air traffic wasn’t the only danger. Crews also had to be vigilant as they delivered supplies. Fuel was tight for the choppers, which were left running while being offloaded because people were hungry and—despite being thankful for the help—not everybody was going to get a bag of rice each time a helicopter landed. Fights were an ongoing possibility, as was the potential for gangs to rush the craft.

“During one delivery,” explained Maher, “the crew locked arms to form a human gate around the helicopter because they were afraid citizens would get caught in the rotor. Those heroes probably saved at least a dozen lives by keeping people back that day. They were only trying to get food. But one person running into a rotor would have stopped critical relief efforts, even with water shortages and the spread of cholera looming.”

Language was a bit of a barrier, as well. Maher was grateful for Mobility Support Advisory Squadrons, whom she described as “working their tails off” while there, and for U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM in Florida), which helped her work through many diplomatic and safety issues.

“We were there 18 days, and it was amazing to work with all those agencies and see supplies get to where people needed them,” she concluded.

Col Maher has been in her current capacity as the 375 AMW/CC at Scott since February 2018. Her associates over the years have described her as tough but compassionate; qualities that have served her well. We suspect her team members in Haiti and Puerto Rico would agree, as would the citizens on the receiving end of those relief efforts.