Leadership Ideas, Information and News

Friday, February 27, 2015

First Sergeant helps when help is needed most

by Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett
JBER Public Affairs

2/26/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Five days later, Operation Desert Shield began. In mid-February of 1991, the 1st Battalion, 42nd Infantry Regiment (Mechanized), 3rd Brigade, 2nd Armored Division, was the first to breach the Saudi Arabia border in Operation Desert Storm. Army corporal Alec Fonoti, a mechanized infantryman, was among the Soldiers in that unit.

"I was in the middle of combat," Fonoti said. "We came out and fought, I saw a lot of what was going on, dead people."

Fonoti served in the Army from 1987 to 1994. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

On Jan. 3, 2015, Fonoti, a mechanic for the quartermaster laundry on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, was preparing dinner with his family to take to a friend's house. With the meal packed, the family of nine loaded everything into their vehicle and left.

"The fire report said the burner on the left was still slightly on," Fonoti said. "A fire caught and it destroyed the whole house."

The Fonoti's checked on their neighbors first, making sure they were safe. Fortunately, the fire had been limited to their house - but everything was destroyed.

"I couldn't think right," he said. "For a big family like mine, I got so stressed that first day. At that point, I thought I might end my life. It was so hard for me, it was painful."

Fonoti said he couldn't focus on work, and told his supervisor as much. Word of the situation spread to first sergeants across the base, and that's when Air Force Master Sgt. Robert Chastain, then the 673d Force Support Squadron first sergeant, stepped in.

"He came over and said he was going to help," Fonoti said. "The two weeks I didn't have PTSD medication, he was there, doing everything for me."

"I knew the house had burned down," Chastain said, now the 673d Communications Squadron first sergeant. "I could see how bad it was really affecting him - he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He couldn't even navigate through the electronic process to order a refill for his PTSD medicine."

The first sergeant helped Fonoti get the medicine refilled. He also reached out to other first sergeants and explained what happened.

Many Air Force programs are available to help out when there's a need, Chastain said.

"Most of the programs are for military," he said. "So I told [the other first sergeants] 'whatever you can get me, I need. If you've got something that you don't need, I'll take it.' We were able to replace [a lot]."

The first sergeants were able to find the Fonotis a house downtown they could afford, he said.

"Before we did that, they were going to the homeless shelter - that's how serious it was," Chastain said. "Think about that, a family like that in December sub-zero temperatures on the streets. Helping them really and truly became my whole focus and purpose."

Helping the Fonotis was among the many actions that earned Chastain the 673d Air Base Wing First Sergeant of the Year award.

"[First sergeants] don't do it for recognition or a thank you, but we came in the next day [to see] two huge posters made by all those children that says 'thank you Master Sergeant Chastain for this' and there's a laundry list of things they received," the first sergeant said. "It gives you a warm feeling. We displayed that inside Building 600 for a couple weeks so everybody could see how their efforts helped. It wasn't just me; I only reached out for help."

"I [felt] like I'd been in combat again - when you fight, they fight with you like a band of brothers," Fonoti said. "He basically saved my life."

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