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Culture, community and camaraderie

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

From bands of Airmen scouring the Biloxi beaches picking up trash, to sharp-suited Airmen displaying the nation’s colors before the local Shuckers game, Keesler Airmen are continually seen throughout the community serving on and off the clock.

“For the short time we are here, we embrace this community and it embraces us,” said Chief Master Sgt. Harry Hutchinson, 81st Training Wing command chief. “We aren’t just a base here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We are a part of the community. We not only work here, but we live here, shop here, dine here and play here.”

Volunteerism

One of the most notable ways Keesler Airmen interact with the Biloxi Bay is through volunteerism. The Air Force recognizes those who go above and beyond the call of duty to continually improve their surroundings through giving their free time for others.

“Our volunteerism program on base gives Airmen a way to practice the Air Force’s core value of service before self,” said Ernesto Alvendia, the Keesler volunteer program coordinator. “Last year Keesler Airmen donated more than 281,000 man hours to civic organizations in the community. It equates to more than $6 million in revenue saved by charitable organizations.”

The hundreds of thousands of hours donated only represent actual documented hours by the Air Force. There are many other ways individual Airmen give that never go noticed publicly due to their individual nature.

Just one example of undocumented selfless service is Master Sgt. Brian Margavich, 2nd Air Force network operations NCO in charge, decided in 2000 that he would be interested in learning the history and giving tours of the local lighthouse on Highway 90.

“I went to the city officials and told them I would love to have a tour. They told me they would love to have it open but didn’t have the manning. That’s when I decided to help,” said Margavich.

Margavich enlisted the help of his wife and daughter Haley and they have been providing weekly tours to countless locals and visitors for nine years.

Providing Honor

Keesler staffs an honor guard to provide final military honors at veteran funerals and perform ceremonies on and off base. These ceremonies can range from posting colors at large civic events to marching in patriotic holiday parades downtown.

“Last year the Keesler honor guard performed 126 color guard ceremonies and 753 funerals,” said Master Sgt. Larry Davidson, Keesler Honor Guard superintendent.

The Keesler honor guard covers an area that spans from the Alabama/Mississippi border to the Louisiana/Texas border and as far north as Jackson, Miss. Or Baton Rouge, La.

“Sometimes this will be the only exposure to a military ceremony that people will have,” said Hutchinson. “It is a very important mission to honor the country and to honor those who have served.”

Mutual Aid

Emergency services are another way Keesler and the surrounding community interact. Keesler has a mutual aid agreement with several cities to coordinate fire protection.

“Our mutual aid agreement allows Biloxi and other cities to request help for something like a large structure fire or another large incident and it goes both ways,” said JD Donnett, Keesler fire chief.

Other than responding to calls for help in the surrounding communities, the local fire departments combine their forces to conduct training exercises, like responding to aircraft crashes at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.

Because of the long history and constant training, the Keesler fire department shares a strong relationship with Harrison County, Biloxi, D’Iberville and Gulfport, according to Donnett.

“In my 30 years in fire protection, the relationships between Keesler and the surrounding area does not exist at the level it does here anywhere else,” said Donnett.

That relationship was put to the test recently with a large structure fire in D’Iberville when the Arbor View Apartments were set ablaze by an arsonist at the height of Mardi Gras celebrations in 2014. Keesler responded to help contain the blaze to just one of the several closely built apartment complexes.

Keesler also responded to a helicopter crash in northern Harrison County when a forestry service helicopter crashed in the DeSoto National Forest.

Focus on Education

Each year, Keesler hosts the safety education Mid-Air Collision Avoidance Conference where local civilian aviators and other government agencies meet with Keeler safety representatives to discuss flight patterns and how to avoid interactions in the air with military aircraft.

Keesler also is dedicated to providing students with exposure to the more technical careers.

“Each year we host a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics day for local high schoolers,” said Liz Waters, the Keesler community support coordinator.

Other areas Keesler partners with local, regional and statewide educators is the Air Force Junior ROTC State Drill Competition, 2nd Air Force hosts a career diversity day for surrounding Universities Air Force ROTC programs, and the 81st Security Forces Squadron hosts a Law Enforcement Explorer Camp.

“We are a part of the community,” said Waters. "Our kids go to their schools and participate in local sports programs; we’ve built so many friendships and programs through the years. Keesler is blessed to have a supportive community like the Mississippi Gulf Coast,”