By 2nd Lt. Bernie Kale
Alaska National Guard
CAMP DENALI, Alaska — In an instant, everything was gone. A lifetime of laughter, tears and memories lay smoldering in a heap of twisted metal and charred lumber. Annette Cook was now without a home.
On Aug. 23, 2011, a propane facility in Butler County, Kan., exploded into flames, causing an enormous fire with as many as 40 separate explosions at the propane-fill station. Harmless tanks of propane turned into 100-pound rockets, shooting in every direction, intent on destruction, according to eye-witnesses.
When the fire subsided and the dust settled, one person was killed, and a building and three houses were destroyed, including Cook’s home.
“It looked like a bomb went off, rubble and ash were everywhere,” she said.
More than 3,000 miles away in interior Alaska, Tech. Sgt. Ricky Ramos, a security forces fire-team leader for the 213th Space Warning Squadron, Clear Air Force Station, checked Facebook and noticed some unsettling photos posted by his childhood classmate Annette.
“I was looking at the aftermath and the destruction, and there was just nothing left,” Ramos said.
He scrolled one by one through photos of Annette’s house decimated by one of the propane tanks. Looking at warped metal where appliances once were, he saw something that spurred him into action.
“I saw a partly-burnt flag that was her father’s, who was a major in the Air Force,” Ramos said. “And I saw a Purple Heart Medal belonging to her grandfather, Fireman 1st Class Russell Shaw, that was melted and blackened from the explosion.”
Annette’s grandfather was on board the USS Drexler when it was sunk by a Japanese Kamikaze attack on May 28, 1945, and he was one of the 158 casualties on the destroyer.
Wanting to help out, Ramos decided to talk to his unit and figure out a way to comfort and take care of the Cook family, half-a-continent away.
“I called up their family as soon as I could, and the first questions they asked were: Who is this? You’re calling from where?” Ramos recalled with a chuckle.
Once the confusion abated, Annette’s sister, Angie Shaw, explained to him that they had no idea how to replace the tarnished military decorum.
“I looked at my guys, and they simply looked back at me,” Ramos said. “I got back on the phone and told her, don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it.”
From there, Ramos and his fellow Airmen dedicated hours of their free time, money from their pockets, and a sense of duty and honor for someone who they have never met. The goal was to have the newly titled “Purple Heart Project” finished by the end of the holiday season.
“We just took it upon ourselves to fix it,’” Ramos said. “Granted, it’s not going to replace the house or give all of their belongings back. But for us, it’s a start.”
After months of research and raising money, Ramos and his unit were able to replace the Purple Heart and burnt flag, and put it into a new shadow box to be displayed at the Cook family’s new home.
“I was shocked they took the time to do this for me, I was blown away,” Cook said.
While Ramos is happy to help an old friend in her time of need, he also says he did it out of honor and respect for a family that has a legacy of service to our nation.
“These guys opened the doors of freedom that we walk through every day,” Ramos said. “They have given so much, and we were more than willing to do it for their family.”
(Clear AFS is one of the six installations operated by the 21st Space Wing. The 213th SWS, Alaska National Guard, and the 13th SWS, one of the wing’s many geographically separated units, together provide space situation awareness and tactical warning of ballistic missile attacks against the United States and Canada as part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System.)