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Defense secretary, generals tour Keesler

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, Chairman Joint Chief of Staff, meets with displaced military families at Keesler AFB, Miss., Sept. 4. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Mike Buytas)

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, Chairman Joint Chief of Staff, meets with displaced military families at Keesler AFB, Miss., Sept. 4. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Mike Buytas)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AETCNS) -- The military's highest-ranking officials leading Hurricane Katrina relief efforts toured Keesler Air Force Base Sept. 4 and personally delivered reassuring words to the storm-battered base's troops and family members.

The visiting delegation, led by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, included Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Admiral Timothy Keating, U.S. Northern Command commander; Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, Joint Task Force Katrina commander; and Maj. Gen. Harold Cross, Mississippi National Guard adjutant general.

The leaders visited the base's devastated housing and industrial areas after receiving a comprehensive post-hurricane overview by General Cross; Maj. Gen. Chip Utterback, 2nd Air Force commander; and Brig. Gen. William Lord, 81st Training Wing commander. The tour was highlighted by a visit with a host of Keesler members - Airmen, Marines and Sailors and their families, many of whom lost most or all of their possessions, as did thousands of other victims along the northern Gulf Coast.

Inside the base's packed Levitow Training Support Center, Secretary Rumsfeld expressed condolences to those who are attempting to cope with stress and frustration in the storm's wake.

While acknowledging the crowd's grief, Secretary Rumsfeld said he was especially thankful that Keesler didn't suffer any lost lives or serious injuries. He asked them to be mindful of the fact that "it could have been worse."

Telling them he had just come from an extensive aerial survey of Katrina's worst-hit places in the greater New Orleans area as well as completely destroyed beachfront homes and businesses in Keesler's neighboring communities of Gulfport and Biloxi, the secretary emphasized, "This base is blessed. As bad as it is (here), when you fly in a helicopter and see this area, it's just amazing to see the damage that's been done."

The delegation expressed special thanks to many in the audience whose above-and-beyond efforts had earlier gained attention of Keesler's leadership. They also lauded some of the more than 400 non-prior service technical training students who volunteered to remain in place and help recovery operations rather than evacuate.

"We appreciate the way you're working as a team," General Myers told the audience. "Our job is to make sure you get the resources to get the job done, get this place stood up and get everybody back on their feet."

Despite Keesler's relentless efforts to get the now austere base functioning again, its people have embraced opportunities to show appreciation for their community neighbors. Just days after emerging from hurricane shelters, the newly-organized daily opportunities to deliver tractor-trailer convoys of humanitarian aid to towns such as Biloxi, Gulfport and Ocean Springs are gaining wide participation.

General Cross's comments reaffirmed the mutual base-community goodwill.

"This is one of the best-supported military bases by a community in the United States," he said. "They love Keesler Air Force Base, and I know Keesler loves Biloxi.

"My heart and prayers go out to you that lost all your possessions, but you still have your lives, your health, your resolve and your resilience," General Cross said. Drawing on the words of poet Robert Frost, he added, "'We have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.' This is going to be a long, long marathon, not a sprint. Let's all hang in there and help each other, because that's our greatest strength; not our technology, but our love for one another."
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