A new mission to provide reusable masks for Missouri veterans in need lifted off at Elton Hensley Memorial Airport Sunday.
With help from Fulton's Kingdom Pilots Association, "Mask a Vet" aims to deliver at least 150,000 reusable facemasks to veterans all over the state. The initiative is Columbia-based United States Exercise Tiger Foundation's (USTF) largest-ever humanitarian effort.
"This is the beginning of the air war against COVID-19," said USTF Executive Officer Walter Domanski.
According to USTF National Executive Director Susan Haines, the mission was born a little over a month ago, when USTF tried to apply for a CARES Act grant to purchase masks for veterans. Finding the process a bit confusing, Haines reached out to Missouri Governor Mike Parson's office for assistance. Someone in the office promised to reach out to the policy committee.
"For about a week, all was quiet," Haines said.
And then Domanski got a call on the USTF's shared cellphone.
"This truck driver calls and says, 'I've got a load of masks for you - do you have a loading dock?" Domanski recounted.
Story continues below video.
The first delivery consisted of 50,000 masks from the United States Public Health Service, provided free through the governor's office and Missouri State Emergency Management Agency. SEMA promised at least another 100,000.
"It was like 'Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,'" Haines said. "Every corner we can possibly put them in is where we're putting them."
The next challenge was distribution. USTF made a couple deliveries by van, but as requests for masks rolled in, Haines wanted a more efficient way to send the masks out.
In addition to heading USTF, Haines happens to be the Kingdom Pilots Association treasurer. Knowing KPA's pilots were tired of being grounded, she reached out to the KPA All Volunteer Group to see if anyone was interested in helping deliver masks to VFWs, veteran hospitals and other veteran associations around Missouri.
"Everyone went, 'Oh yeah, we'll help,'" Haines said.
"I think it's awesome," said Steve Wendling, KPA vice president and one of the pilots who voluntered to help. "I was never in the military, but if there's anything I can do to help out and assist veterans, I'm all for it."
Sunday, two flights departed Elton Hensley, each bearing thousands of masks. Wendling headed off to Kansas City, while KPA treasurer Dave Hollabaugh and his copilot/wife, Peggy Hollabaugh, flew to Hannibal.
"I appreciate the opportunity to do this," Dave Hollabaugh said.
A third mission was moved to today following a scheduling conflict. Ted Forester and copilot Farris Wooten are bringing 10,000 masks to Poplar Bluff for distribution throughout the bootheel.
""It's something I feel like I can do to support veterans," Forester said.
Forester, an U.S. Army and National Guard veteran himself, has spent more than 4,000 hours in the air, including flying search-and-rescue missions and Angel Flights to deliver patients for medical treatment. But, he said, he's never flown a mission quite like this before.
In fact, this program - partnering a veteran's organization with an aviation club is unique in the United States, Haines said. Sunday and Monday's flights are "pathfinder missions," she explained; USTF will take the lessons it learns during the flights to make future missions more smooth and efficient.
Haines made it clear this week's flights and last week's ground deliveries are just the beginning. After all, Missouri has more than 400,000 veterans.
"Our mission is, 'We leave no veteran behind,'" she said.
To request masks on behalf of a veterans' organization, city or county, contact USTF at 573-356-0529 or [email protected]