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McChord USO volunteers offer hand in national disaster relief

Pair of volunteers trek separate directions to assist in relief efforts for different disasters

Volunteers help wrangle an emu into a holding pen as part of an animal rescue operation in eastern Arizona after wildfires devastated more than a quarter-million acres. /Curtis Sellers

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McChord Center United Service Organization volunteers are steadfast in their dedication to the center and serving troops who come through.

But when duty calls to help serve others in need, a couple of the center's volunteers recently stepped up to help on a national level with other organizations.

About two weeks ago, wildfires ravaged an area in eastern Arizona. The fires scorched a total of a quarter-million acres and destroyed dozens of homes just north of the U.S. - Mexico border. About 2,500 firefighters have fought the blaze, some coming in from as far away as New York. Residents had to evacuate the towns of Eagar and Springerville.

USO volunteer Curtis Sellers' mother was one of the people evacuated from her home.

So Sellers, a former Marine whose wife is an officer in the 627th Logistics Readiness Squadron, left McChord and started driving last week to go help his mother out working at a temporary shelter for animals set up at a local fairground.

"All of the sudden the fire hit and more than 7,000 people were displaced," said Sellers, whose mother is the president of a local animal rescue shelter in the area. "Families were literally choosing between which animals to leave and which ones to take."

Sellers took up work helping unloading food donated to the temporary shelter and helping arrange animals that were dropped off; a list that included dogs, cats, rabbits, turkeys, emus, goats, pigs and even horses.

"It's like an eight-ring circus here," Sellers said in a telephone interview from Arizona last week.

The work Sellers is doing in Arizona is much different from what he does at the USO ("Some manual labor ... mostly honey-to-do list stuff," he said of the USO work), but he's enjoying helping people and animals.

He plans on staying at least another week, even if that means more nights sleeping and living out of the back of his truck.

"I've been in worse (situations)," he said with a laugh.

USO volunteer and retired Army veteran Larry Smith recently spent three weeks in Joplin, Mo. volunteering with the Red Cross. A massive tornado struck the southwest Missouri city on May 24, leaving nothing but splintered trees where neighborhoods once stood, killing at least 116 people and destroying at least 2,000 buildings.

Smith, who has volunteered with the USO for about three years, is also a government and community liaison volunteer with the Red Cross.  

When he first set foot in Joplin, Smith admits he was overcome with emotion.

"You have to stop and take some time for yourself," he said.

Smith worked to assist local church and community groups who wanted to help with relief efforts.

"It's pretty confusing in that first week," he said. "There are a lot of people there who want to help."

The 21-day Red Cross deployment flew by for the 59-year-old Smith, who returned home June 17.

"You lose track of the days of the week," he said. "They just kind of run together."

So much so, that Smith didn't even realize it was ready to go home until the day his flight was scheduled to leave.After taking the weekend off after his return home, Smith showed up right on time for his USO shift on Monday.

"I'd promised I'd be here," he said.

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