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Off they go into the wildlife yonder

7:07 pm June 20th, 2012

James Lee marches through undergrowth at Northwest Trek in search of invasive blackberry bushes that he and other volunteers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord helped remove. (Seth Bynum/Northwest Trek)

Air Force Staff Sgt. James Lee, fresh from an overseas deployment, wanted a different kind of service closer to home. Northwest Trek thanks him. Lee and 20 other crew members from the 62nd Airlift Wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord spent a recent Wednesday volunteering at the wildlife park near Eatonville in an effort to give something back to the general Pierce County community. From 8 o’clock in the morning to 2 in the afternoon June 6, the delegation – with pick axes, shovels and elbow grease – planted trees, redistributed storm debris, hacked away at blackberry canes in an effort to remove invasive vegetation at the park’s conservation center, and helped prepare the family camp site for future use, and extended a deck with recycled wood. Lee, whose Air Force job is planning and implementing the travel of troops from Joint Base Lewis-McChord to wherever they’re needed around the world, turned his organizational skills to volunteer work after a recent return from overseas. He told Northwest Trek officials he wanted to help their facility because he lives nearby and he and his young son enjoy visiting the park and seeing its wildlife inhabitants.

The latest work party was the third he’s organized, partly through word of mouth. Crew members and some of their family members signed up.
“It’s part of being a well-rounded member of the military community,” Lee said, adding the work helps keep air members fit.
Lee, a 30-year-old native of Bennettsville, S.C., said he learned about the joys of Northwest Trek not long after he arrived at Joint Base Lews-McChord in 2010.
“I like the atmosphere here and the fact that it’s a free-roaming zoo,” he said.
When he climbed into the wildlife park’s tram with his toddler son, Elijah, for their first guided tour, the 2-year-old “just grew quiet and stared out the window” while looking for animals, Lee related.
When relatives visit his family, Northwest Trek is often a destination. “I’ll bring them here so they can see some things they’ve never seen,” Lee said.
Northwest Trek officials note that there is a special bond between Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) and the wildlife park. Trek, in partnership with JBLM biologists, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and other Northwest zoos and agencies, is a leader in the repopulation of the endangered Oregon spotted frog. The work has jump-started thousands of frogs, raising them from eggs for release into wetland habitats at the military base near Tacoma.
The frogs once inhabited most of Puget Sound’s lowlands, but only a handful of isolated populations exist today.
The 62nd Airlift crew that participated in the work party early this month participated as individuals, not as representatives of the Air Force or Joint Base-Lewis McChord.
Lee said it’s fulfilling to serve at home as well as abroad.
Staff Sgt. Andrew Prowant agrees. He said volunteer work in the community is a way for military men and women to thank the general community for their support of the troops.
“They can see us as more than someone who’s out there carrying a weapon or turning a wrench,” he said.
The 62nd Airlift’s military missions range from flying humanitarian relief to victims of earthquakes, hurricanes and other disasters in the U.S. and abroad, to dropping troops into hostile areas. Some examples: The played a key role in the first ever, high-altitude combat humanitarian airdrop in the early stages of Operation Enduring Freedom. While coalition forces battled with the Taliban on the ground, C-17s delivered more than 70,000 daily humanitarian rations to war-weary citizens of Afghanistan. And in 2005, the 62nd helped helped fly more than 135,000 pounds of food and water into the region devastated by Hurricane Katrina and flew more than 1,000 storm victims to safety. The 62nd’s history dates to 1947, the year the airlift wing was established at what was then called McChord Field.

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