While growing up in Holyoke, Daisha McCuskey had a few specific dreams.
She wanted to be a nurse, work with kids – and join the 148th Fighter Wing of the Air Force in Duluth.
Last year, she saw all those dreams come together when she deployed to the Caribbean and South America as a medical technician on a military humanitarian assistance mission.
Known as Operation Continuing Promise 2008, the trip allowed Staff Sgt. McCuskey to spend last August-December aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge, which took them to eight countries in the region. The mission was supported by various units and nongovernmental organizations from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Brazil, Nicaragua, Panama, Columbia, Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Tobago and Guyana.
“It was the trip of a lifetime,” McCuskey said. “I jumped at the chance to go.”
McCuskey and fellow airmen U. S. Air Force Sr. Amn. Alexandra Olson of Proctor were the only two from the 148th to make the journey.
What they saw and experienced with some 1,500 others on the ship was life-changing.
“The trip was about ‘getting the job done’ and the job for us was providing medical care to people in areas that don’t have any,” she explained. “The people in these countries would walk for miles barefoot with babies on their hips, in order for their children to be seen [by health care professionals].”
In addition to medical care, those on the ship also provided dental, optometry and veterinary care along with construction, renovation and small-scale civil engineering projects.
Just being on the ship was a thrill for McCuskey, since her experience is in the Air Force.
“The ship was all gray, some 800 feet long and could hold 2,500 people,” she said. “But, a luxury cruise it was not.”
McCuskey went on to explain.
“I slept in a very small space near the ceiling as we all slept stacked in different slats on top of each other,” she said. “In our compartment we had nearly 50 of us from the Air Force and we shared three shower and four bathroom stalls.”
Those ratios were similar to those McCuskey experienced while in Basic Training, however, so it wasn’t too jarring for her.
“It wasn’t a place for much personal time,” she laughed.
Like a small city, the ship was self-contained with everything personnel needed from meals to a general store. They also had access to the Internet, although it was slow, and calling home was possible but very expensive.
Tons of medical supplies and other rations were kept on the ship and McCuskey became very adept at packing those supplies in preparation for each day’s mission.
“We packed and repacked and packed again every night,” she said.
The ship could not often come close to shore, so crews would be flown by helicopter from the ship to shore.
“That part alone was so cool,” she said.
In Haiti, their mission was hurricane relief and since there was no equipment to move the relief supplies, McCuskey spent all day for several days just unloading 110-pound bags of rice, oil, beans, water and toiletries in the 120-degree heat.
“It was a lot of work,” she admitted. “It was worth it though when we saw little kids poke their heads around the building where we were working. Those big brown eyes looking at you. I will never forget it.”
For McCuskey, the most rewarding work came anytime she was around children.
One of her favorite experiences involved entertaining children while they were on the ship as about a dozen people per day were transported for minor surgeries. She let them play with her digital camera and enjoyed their curiosity about everything. Then one day a 4-year-old girl from Guyana came to the ship – her eyes had been webbed shut since birth.
“I was there when she first saw,” she said. “She just looked and looked and then ran around and her parents of course had never seen her eyes before. It was unreal.”
Assisting surgeries done by Operation Smile always made her day as well.
“We had a little boy called Hurricane come and he had a bad cleft palate,” she said. “He couldn’t eat regular food because of it, so his chances of survival without surgery were slim. They literally saved his life. All of this made it impossible not to fall in love with the kids.”
McCuskey said she’s known since she was 10 years old that she would join the 148th in 2004 after graduating from Wrenshall High School.
“It’s family tradition,” she explained.
Her brother, Jason McCuskey, also joined and is currently also a staff sgt. Their father, Randy McCuskey, is a retired chief master sergeant and their uncle is in the 148th as well. McCuskey’s mother, Angela, is extremely supportive of the family’s endeavors.
“It’s a great place to be,” McCuskey said of the 148th. “You’re accepted, loved and cared for just like a family.”
The nursing profession first called to McCuskey at age 7 when she had surgery.
“The nurses were so wonderful, I wanted to be one, too, except for one year when I wanted to be a teacher,” she laughed. “Either way, I knew I wanted to work with kiddos.”
Since returning from Operation Continuing Promise, McCuskey is enrolled as a nursing student at Wisconsin Indian Technical College and plans to re-enlist in the 148th after her six-year term is up in 2010.
“Really, it’s one of the best things I ever did,” she said. “How else would I have gotten to take that trip? It’s given me a new perspective on life and my family.”
Eventually, McCuskey would like to work in pediatrics and will keep an ear open for any opportunities for future humanitarian military work.
“Right now, being single and living at home makes it easy for me to pick up and go,” she said. “And you never know when an opportunity like that will pop up.”