SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – Staff Sgt. Jessica Solano began her aircrew flight equipment career some six years ago as an AFE student here at Sheppard AFB.
She has deployed around the world in support of global operations to combat an enemy that likes to play hide-and-seek, but they are often found and destroyed. Never did she think that just two months into her AFE instructing career in the 361st Training Squadron that she’d be part of an effort in the 82nd Training Wing to ward off a deadly and invisible foe – COVID-19.
Solano, other instructors and recent AFE graduates have put their sewing skills to work to create thousands of cloth face covers out of garments like old Battle Dress Uniforms and Airman Battle Uniforms to recently discarded Operational Camouflage Pattern uniforms. The race to provide another precautionary measure to the combat toolkit against COVID-19 began in earnest April 6, 2020, at the 361st TRS schoolhouse.
“As a relatively new instructor, I thought my focus was going to be on training and instructing,” she said. “But, I’m very thankful that I was able to be a part of something this big for the entire Sheppard Air Force Base (community). I never once pictured that we would be doing something like this, but it’s been so beneficial and so helpful, so I’m glad to be part of it.”
The Department of Defense issued guidance April 6, 2020, requiring use and wear of cloth face covers as another precautionary barrier to limit the spread of COVID-19 for military personnel, DoD civilians, their family members, and contractors when social distancing isn’t practical or difficult to maintain.
“Effective immediately, to the extent practical, all individuals on DoD property, installations, and facilities will wear cloth face coverings when they cannot maintain six feet of social distance in public areas or work centers,” the memo read, excluding on base residences. “This includes all: military personnel; DoD civilian employees; family members; DoD contractors; and all other individuals on DoD property, installations, and facilities.”
The small army of sewing Airmen has received donations from people and organizations around base to begin their construction of this new line of defense for Sheppard’s military community. Materials are gathered on the second floor of Bldg. 1900, cut into a small, roughly 6-inch by 4-inch rectangle, and then passed off to a station where a filter-type material is ironed on. The pieces of cloth are then taken by Airmen manning sewing stations and put together, including elastic earpieces.
While the group of 361st AFE course alumni are getting to work on creating the face covers, they’re not doing it alone. Recent graduates from other aircraft maintenance technical training schoolhouses have also stepped up to craft the homemade covers.
Solano said the different career fields working together is similar to a deployed environment, where Airmen often find themselves helping out others when needed.
“I think that (other career fields) being able to see what we’re doing here is going to give them kind of a new look on AFE in general,” she said.
Airman 1st Class Devon Miceli, a 363rd Training Squadron aircraft munitions apprentice course graduate from Buffalo, New York, said when he arrived at Sheppard about two months ago, he thought he’d learn his Air Force job and then move on to his next duty assignment. COVID-19 changed those plans, at least for the short term.
But, he said, working with the AFE crew gives him the opportunity to learn about another career field in the Air Force while contributing to the task at hand. He said he feels great knowing he is part of an effort that will help keep Sheppard’s training mission going, a mission deemed essential for defense of the country.
Airman Kyson Bonebright, a recent AFE grad and native of Williamsport, Indiana, said he finished the two-week block of instruction focused on sewing about five weeks ago. He said he was used to working with Herculite – a durable fabric used for making products such as wheel covers – but sewing fabric like cotton was new to him.
Bonebright said he has enjoyed being part of this project because he is creating a product for others on base.
“Honestly, I love it, just knowing I’m doing something great,” he said. “Sometimes it gets boring having the old, regular face covers, but when you get a whole bunch of people to volunteer and help to make covers for everyone on base, it just seems like you’re doing a good deed, and there’s nothing better than that.”
Solano said she is proud of the Airmen volunteers, especially those from the AFE course who have stepped up to help Airmen from other career fields and troubleshoot issues.
With well over 4,000 Airmen-in-Training on Sheppard at any moment as well as sister service and international partners, the couple thousand cloth face covers will be just what the doctor ordered to combat and defeat COVID-19.