TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
In October of 2018, Tyndall Air Force Base and the surrounding community were ravaged by a Category 5 hurricane. Anticipating the extreme danger and destruction awaiting the base, Tyndall personnel were evacuated and scattered across the southeast looking for safe haven. They waited for the storm to pass, not knowing what they would return to, or if they’d be able to return at all.
Hurricane Michael damaged every building on base, completely destroying several of them. In the uncertainty that followed, many of Tyndall’s personnel were permanently relocated to other bases throughout the Air Force.
Some had the choice to leave, but many did not. For those who did have a choice, very few chose to stay, but they did so for reputable reasons.
The 325th Security Forces Squadron Military Working Dog (MWD) unit members, Tech. Sgt. Billy Lofton, Staff Sgt. Marcus Lavalais, and Staff Sgt. Jason Vogt, chose to stay after the hurricane, despite the extreme stress and inconvenience they’d come to face.
They each made that choice with the same intention: to rebuild the program they knew and loved from the ground up and make it better than the last.
“There wasn’t anything wrong with the way things were before,” said Vogt. “This was and still is a great place to be. But when you have the opportunity to take something you care about and make it even better, it’s something you need to sacrifice for.”
The process of rebuilding hasn’t been easy for the team of three. Damaged offices, destroyed vehicles and a lack of manning have been some of the larger obstacles for them to overcome.
“It was a stressful time for us when we first got back to base,” said Vogt. “Almost everything was impaired in some way. The only part of our facility that really survived the storm was the kennels.”
Equipment, documents and furniture were destroyed due to damage sustained by the building’s exterior. Water flooded the building though holes in the ceiling and wind whipped through the halls taking anything that wasn’t secured.
“The damage forced us to adapt to a new lifestyle at Tyndall,” said Vogt. “Our mission is to provide deterrence to the base, and in order to do that we’ve had to get creative and learn to overcome the day-to-day challenges that come with working in a devastated environment.”
Majority of the buildings used for simulated narcotic and explosive training have been completely destroyed. MWDs and their handlers have had to use makeshift exercise environments to stay up to date on training.
“We’re in a rough spot but we have high hopes,” said Lavalais. “We’re dedicated to making this facility better prepared for any type of training and weather.”
Lavalais said, the destruction has given them the ability to recreate their training facilities into more effective training environments for both dogs and handlers. One of their main projects will be an updated obedience course for MWDs. The new outdoor area will have artificial turf to protect the dogs’ paws from excessive heat and an overhang to protect them from heavy rain and sun.
“We have plans for how we’d like to rebuild,” said Vogt. “We have our MWDs’ best interest in mind throughout all of this and we’re motivated to creating a facility that produces exceptional K9s.”
Vogt said, besides the physical aspects of rebuilding, a big accomplishment is the arrival of their new permanent party members. They’ve just welcomed their first MWD, Sunny, and they’re expecting several more in the coming months.
“We’re eager to get our new members but we owe a huge thanks to all of the Airmen who came to Tyndall for temporary duty and helped us out,” said Lavalais. “Having them here has taken a lot off our plates so we can really focus on getting our mission done while rebuilding. We’ve gone through a lot since October and they’ve been by our sides for most of it.”
The 325th SFS MWD members agreed that the adversity they faced has strengthened their team and given them unique experiences that they’ll carry with them for the rest of their careers.
“We’re family now, and after this we can probably get through anything together,” said Vogt. “I’m excited for the future of this unit and I’m proud to have been a part of the rebuilding.”