By Derek Turner

For the men and women who walked the streets of Moore, Oklahoma, the comparisons could not be avoided.

Destruction in 360 degrees. Sometimes it was complete, sometimes it seemed random. A house standing intact while those around it lay in piles of broken studs and drywall and picture frames.

It looks like war, doesn’t it?

“A lot of the smells are the same,” Army Specialist James Kimball said. “The same helplessness in people’s eyes.”

Kimball deployed to Afghanistan with the Oklahoma National Guard. When he was there, he knew the score. His mission was clear, but there was also detachment. He had no strong ties to that country or the people. He was there to help them, sure, but mainly he was there to serve his country.

When he was activated again, this time in response to the tornado that ripped through Moore on May 20, it was different. The street he was assigned to was familiar. Several of his friends lived down that street, and a couple of them no longer had a home.

Thousands of troops, both active duty and National Guard, descended on Moore following the tornado that killed 24 people, nine of them children. They became a force multiplier for emergency responders, cordoning off damaged areas and setting up checkpoints. Troops assisted in search-and-rescue and aided those in need.

For many, it was the most important mission of their lives. When the military responds to a natural disaster at home, the stories are personal.

“It hits your heart a lot closer,” he said.

‘We Want to Help’

It couldn’t happen again, could it?

As Colonel Steven J. Bleymaier, commander of the 72nd Air Base Wing at Tinker Air Force Base, watched the weather reports, all he could think about was 1999.

On May 3, 1999, a mile-wide tornado—an F-5, the most powerful on the Fujita Scale—sliced through Tinker, killing five base personnel and leaving a $16 million trail of destruction. All told, that storm killed 40 people and injured 675. The damage topped $1 billion.

Not again.

“Everyone immediately thought Tinker’s going to get hit,” Bleymaier said. “As it started to move east and veer away from Tinker, there was a sigh of relief.”

But the relief didn’t last. It wasn’t quite true that the storm would miss Tinker. Yes, it would skirt the physical boundaries of the base. But Tinker is home to 26,000 personnel, fewer than 10,000 of them military. Tinker personnel are spread throughout the area.

Yes, the storm would hit Tinker.

“We realized that it was starting to just horrifically chew up different neighborhoods in the Moore area,” he said. “We knew the impact was going to be severe. We knew that Tinker families were going to be impacted and we feared the worst.”

Tinker is ready for this. The base is stocked with a wide spectrum of disaster response capabilities. There are firefighters and security forces and a slew of others, all of whom raced to the impacted areas to lend a hand. They met a lot of needs immediately and then partnered with the National Guard, which had set up a joint operations center.

On the base, the Airmen and Family Readiness Center began an emergency family assistance operation. They spread the word about where volunteers were needed or where donations could be directed. Units on the base alerted the center to specific needs of their personnel, and the base worked quickly to address them.

About 160 Tinker employees had their homes completely destroyed and about 210 had their homes damaged so severely that they could not be lived in.

The storm—an EF-5 on the newer Enhanced Fujita Scale—hit on a Monday. By Friday, when things had calmed some, the base organized a Team Tinker Helping Families Day. More than 800 people registered online to volunteer, and many more simply showed up, ready to work.

“Whether you wear the uniform or you’re civilian, you know you’re part of a family that’s special,” Bleymaier said. “Without a second thought, we want to help the Oklahomans who were impacted as well. They’re our friends, they’re our neighbors, they’re our partners and they’re part of our family, so we’re going to lend a hand to whoever needs it.”

‘It Doesn’t Sound Like a Train’

Technical Sergeant Rhonda Stockstill is a surgical technician at Tinker. She remembers, before the tornado came, hearing newscasters saying, “If you’re above ground, you’re not going to survive.”

She huddled with her parents and dogs in a closet beneath a stairwell. She prayed as the tornado approached.

“Everybody says it sounds like a train. It doesn’t sound like a train,” she said. “It almost sounded like a wood chipper. And then an explosion.”

It was her house that exploded. The roof lifted off, most of the walls tore away and Stockstill’s life was suddenly naked to the world, possessions scattered as far as the wind would carry them.

Her remaining wardrobe consisted of one pair of jeans, one pair of sweatpants and one military uniform.

Standing a week later in the uninhabitable skeleton of her house, she was thankful for the generosity of her church family and her military family, those who offered her clothes or a place to stay, even as she still had so many questions about where she would go and what would happen next.

“It’s hard to even sometimes accept that stuff because you’re like, ‘I’m not poor, but everything’s gone,’” she said. “Everything’s devastated. Complete devastation.”

An Air Force Angel

Sandra Adams had been bedridden for days, breathing life from an oxygen tank, when the tornado arrived at the house in Moore where she’d lived for 32 years.

Adams’ 88-year-old mother was visiting from Wagner, two hours to the northwest, and taking care of her inside the home on 14th Street. Heeding the sudden warnings, Sandra’s mother helped her out of bed and the two of them, along with a wiener dog named Duke, climbed into a bathtub to wait. When the tiles started falling from the walls above them, they kept their heads down.

“I thought we was goners,” Adams said.

When the storm passed, they were still alive. Adams looked out from the tub and saw a television in the hallway and daylight pouring in where it should not have been. Debris still swirled, and she knew her house was destroyed.

Good Samaritans found them there and carried Adams two blocks toward help, and it was there she sat, scared and shivering, when she met Air Force Technical Sergeant Drew Stanley.

Stanley, an air cargo specialist with the Oklahoma National Guard, was working at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base as the weather reports started coming. From the television he learned that the storm was headed directly toward his house. He waited anxiously until he believed it had come and gone, then he got in his car and raced there.

He drew a deep breath when he discovered that his house was fine, his roommates were safe and the dogs were alive. He drove around the corner to check on relatives. A miracle, none had been hurt.

But the radio reported children trapped in nearby Briarwood Elementary School, so he pointed his car in that direction.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” he said.

When traffic blocked the roads, he parked and ran. He never made it to the school. Victims were streaming away from the area and Stanley met up with police and other first responders.

They got word of older people nearby in need of urgent help. Adams was down to her last bottle of oxygen, only another 15 or 20 minutes’ worth. She was shaking.

Stanley asked if she was cold. She said she was, and he started tugging at his buttons.

She called it his jacket; he said it was a blouse. Either way, he took it off and draped it around her, then left to find paramedics.

In the chaos, he located some with access to a Ford Ranger belonging to the Oklahoma City police. The paramedics got Adams to the hospital while Stanley joined the search-and-rescue effort.

He wondered, when he got home late that night, what happened to the woman. He hadn’t gotten her name. He hoped she was OK, but didn’t know how he’d ever find out.

Yet days later there he was walking into her hospital room clutching a bouquet of flowers. She’d spoken to a reporter with the Daily Oklahoman, who worked with the Air Force to track down the angel of an airman whose blouse bore the name tag “Stanley.”

“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” she said, clutching the blouse she waited to return. “Bless your heart.”

—Reporting from Oklahoma contributed by Army Master Sergeant Vincent Donaldson and Air Force Staff Sergeant David Clark.