MELVILLE HALL, Dominica, Oct. 23, 2017 —
When he packed his bags to deploy in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, 28-year-old Marine Corps Cpl. Michael A. Fleenor had no idea that he and his forklift driving skills would be playing such an important role in U.S. Southern Command’s response to hurricanes Irma and Maria.
“The people on the two different islands where I’ve been sent are in desperate need of resources,” said Fleenor, a heavy equipment operator with Joint Task Force Leeward Islands, which has been supporting the U.S. Agency for International Development in its hurricane response efforts in the eastern Caribbean. “My position has given me the unique ability to work with not only the locals, but also the other aiding countries in providing these people with the resources they need.”
Forklifts give Marines the ability to move heavy pallets of gear, a key capability in a disaster response situation. Fleenor’s forklift speeds up loading and unloading times, making the response much more efficient.
“I’ve been working from sunup to sundown here on Dominica, and it’s beneficial work because of how much it’s helping the local population,” Fleenor said. “In total, I’ve moved a combined total of 3.5 million pounds of supplies at the very least.”
He also helped the airport staff clear the runway at Douglas-Charles Airport in Melville Hall, Dominica, which facilitated its reopening to civilian aircraft ahead of schedule.
“His first day here he went through almost a half tank of fuel [because] there was so many calls for his services,” said Patrick Long, a logistics representative with the U.S. Agency for International Development. “The forklift came at a critical time for the response and it made all the difference. Corporal Fleenor is unwavering in his commitment to offload every aircraft that parks on the ramp here and he does it with smiles and thumbs up.”
Because of his efforts, more than 62,000 people in St. Martin and Dominica received vitally needed aid, including hygiene kits, kitchen sets, water containers, blankets, tarps, food and potable water.
“Working with different nations has been great. I’ve gotten to see how other nations’ flight crews operate and also see how quickly we can come together and help those in need,” Fleenor said. “These last three weeks have given me a new perspective on the importance of a heavy equipment operator and forklift capability, especially in a disaster, to be able to provide quick and efficient aid to the local populace.”
JTF-LI evacuated more than 170 American citizens from Dominica, taking them to safe havens on nearby islands. Working from these locations, other members of the task force have coordinated with USAID and international partners to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to the islands of St. Martin and Dominica.
The task force is a U.S. military unit composed of Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen, and represents U.S. Southern Command’s primary response to both hurricanes Irma and Maria.
“Over the course of the last two weeks, JTF-LI provided lifesaving support to the people of Dominica, delivering over 75 metric tons of relief supplies, logistical support to the humanitarian community and sustainment support to the [Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance] response team,” said Tim Callaghan, senior regional advisor with USAID. “In particular, the forklift provided to Charles-Douglas Airport was absolutely critical to increasing the throughput of life saving humanitarian supplies."
“Fleenor is truly one of the unsung heroes of this response,” Callaghan added. “His tireless efforts, while perhaps not the most visible, were certainly among the most critical and were of immeasurable value to the entire humanitarian community.”
Fleenor also received a certificate of appreciation from the Royal Canadian Air Force for his outstanding devotion and professionalism in support of ongoing operations.
“This has been an awesome experience,” he said. “Joining nations together to provide humanitarian aid to people who have lost essentially everything, during one of the biggest storms recorded in history, is going to help restart these location on a firm footing to rebuild their countries.”
Editor's note: The original story can be viewed on the Defense Department website.