By Senior Master Sgt. Timm Huffman
157th Air Refueling Wing
Kids grow fast, leaving parents with bags and bins of too-small clothes filling space in attics and cellars.
This was the conversation Senior Airman Katlyn Legerstee, a 157th Air Refueling Wing military pay specialist, was having with another mom in late August, just as vulnerable Afghans were arriving at temporary housing facilities at several military bases around the U.S.
Pease deployed 11 members to support the arrivals at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, part of the Department of Defense’s response to a request for support from the Department of State.
Legerstee wanted to volunteer for the mission, known as Operation Allies Refuge, but her responsibilities as a full-time pay technician at the base meant she could not leave her day job. She saw the clothing conundrum as an opportunity to help anyway.
On her own time, she began reaching out to others in the community for support. Leveraging social media, personal connections, and the community at Pease, Legerstee asked for donations of clothing. While her own contributions started with baby clothes, donations of clothes and shoes for men, women and children soon poured in. Most of the donations came from members of the Pease community.
“I would tell people where I parked for the day and they would drop their donations off at my car,” said Legerstee, who noted she got out of work on more than one occasion to find bags of clothes piled in and around her car.
By mid-September, she had collected enough clothes to fill the bed of her father’s black Chevy Silverado and an 8-foot trailer owed behind it. In total, Legerstee estimated she collected nearly 100 bags of donated clothing.
On September 17, Legerstee climbed into the truck and made the six-hour trek to New Jersey. Tech. Sgt. Cassandra Dowling, another pay office Airman, accompanied her.
Dowling, who recently returned from a deployment to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, left her deployed location just as refugees were arriving there and did not feel like she had really had a chance to help them. She said supporting Legerstee with the clothing donation was a small way she could contribute.
Upon arriving at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, Staff Sgt. Jake Leonard greeted them outside a brick warehouse-like building. The sound of children playing nearby filled the air. Leonard, a member of the 157th Air Refueling Wing who volunteered for the mission, was in charge of distributions for one of the refugee villages and helped Legerestee and Dowling unload their donation and then gave them a tour.
The three Pease Airmen never completed their tour of the village, as they soon encountered a group of Afghan children playing outside. They spent the remainder of their time interacting with the refugees.
“It was the sweetest thing to play and interact with them, and to see how resilient they were after such a traumatic situation,” said Dowling.
The one-day trip turned into an overnight stay in New Jersey, when their tour ended five hours later. Legerstee and Dowling left touched by the experience, which they called humbling and rewarding.
“I was really impressed with our members who are down there on orders,” said Legerstee. “Seeing their morale and that they are working really hard, sometimes 12 hours a day, seven days a week.”