Mark Abels, NAB

As I near the end of my second decade of volunteer service to The Salvation Army, I can look back on dozens of experiences that have proven the wisdom of my decision to “enlist.”  My favorite story will always be the first one, from which I learned in a very dramatic way about the power of the Army to do good.

It was August 1992, a month and year that will never be forgotten in South Florida.  That was the year of Hurricane Andrew, the fourth most powerful hurricane ever to make landfall in our country.  Andrew cut a swath of utter destruction across the Sunshine State, the effects of which are still visible in many places today.

At the time, I worked as vice president of corporate communications at Northwest Airlines.  Part of my job was to oversee the company’s charitable and community activities.  It was a challenging job, in part because, like all airlines then and now, Northwest was pretty much broke most of the time, and you can’t give away money that you don’t have.

We compensated by being creative and using resources other than cash to help out those in need.  One of the things the company allowed me to do was to “borrow” aircraft, including the giant 747 freighters from our cargo fleet, to fly relief missions in times of need.

The need in South Florida in 1992 was tremendous and we mobilized for the task.  Securing an aircraft was easy.  Northwest provided the plane, our pilots and ground crews volunteered their time to fly the missions, and our fuel suppliers kicked in the jet fuel.  Filling the aircraft with relief supplies also was surprisingly easy.  Dozens of companies and non-profits were eager to contribute, and we quickly lined up a full load (about 250,000 pounds) of supplies ranging from medicines and medical equipment to meals to cleaning kits to portable showers.

Then came the hard part.  The biggest challenge in any such operation is putting the materiel to good use once it leaves the plane.  It is too easy for such things to be piled up and left in a warehouse, or to disappear into the black market to be sold.  Without a tough and capable partner to receive, manage and distribute the supplies, the efforts and the gift would be wasted.

Through mutual acquaintances, I connected with Colonel Tom Jones of The Salvation Army.  At the time, I of course knew about The Army and its Red Kettles and Harbor Lights, but I had no idea that they did disaster relief.  I described the gift we wanted to make, provided Col. Jones and The Army could handle it.

“We’re very grateful, and we can do the job,” Col. Jones replied.

“I appreciate that, Colonel, but please understand,” I replied.  “We’re talking about 250,000 pounds of supplies – 125 tons of stuff.  We can only be on the ground for one hour, and there is no place to store these supplies at the airport.  You have to take it all and get it off the airport and into your own warehouse in one hour.  Sure you can do that?”

“No problem,” he answered.

Well, I thought, we’ll see.

We flew to Seattle for half of the load, stopped in Chicago for the other half and landed at Miami just as dusk was settling over Florida.  We taxied to a remote ramp at the edge of the airport and parked the aircraft to unload.  Peering out the cockpit window, I saw a sight I will never forget.

On the road just outside of the airport fence sat a line of Salvation Army trucks, lights on and engines idling, stretching out literally farther than the eye could see.  One hour later the cargo was gone, the trucks were gone, and we were starting the engines to fly home.

That was the night I learned to believe in The Salvation Army.  Almost twenty years later, I still believe.