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Eglin Air Force Base chapter of Air Force sergeants' group 'adopts' Henderson Beach State Park

Members of the Eglin Air Force Base chapter of the Air Force Sergeants Association work recently on a structure at Henderson Beach. In the wake of last year's Hurricane Sally, the chapter has made Henderson Beach an ongoing community service project.

By JIM THOMPSON | The Destin Log | Published: March 18, 2021

DESTIN, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — The Eglin Air Force Base chapter of the Air Force Sergeants Association ( AFSA) has adopted Henderson Beach in Destin as an ongoing community service project.

In that role, the association, which is not affiliated with the Department of Defense, is committing to keep the beach clear to facilitate potential sea turtle nesting. Additionally, the outreach by the James C. Binnicker Chapter of the AFSA is designed to ensure that debris are cleared from the beach in the event of hurricanes or other severe weather.

The local AFSA chapter is named for a late former Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force who in retirement served as president and CEO of the Air Force Enlisted Village in Shalimar.

"... (W)e try our very best to be ambassadors for the community," said Master Sgt. Benjamin Hardy, president of the local AFSA chapter. "Our members are involved (in community service) throughout the year in any way we can."

The chapter's 812 members include active-duty and retired service members or family members of those service members.

The decision to focus on Henderson Beach State Park as an ongoing service project, amid the chapter's other work in the community, came in the wake of Hurricane Michael in 2018. Hurricane Michael laid waste to a wide swath of the Florida Panhandle, including some limited damage in Okaloosa and Walton counties.

But one of the chapter's current members, Tech. Sgt. Chris Essue, was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base in nearby Panama City during Hurricane Michael. The hurricane all but leveled the base, and in talking last year about new service projects for the local AFSA chapter, Essue "recalled how bad the beaches (in and around Panama City) were affected," Hardy recalled.

As a result of that discussion, Hardy said, he remembered his wife's work on a collegiate degree program which included research into the area's endangered turtle population.

Initially, the local AFSA chapter — at Essue's suggestion — focused its work on ensuring beaches in the area that see frequent turtle nesting were optimized for that purpose. But then came last year's Hurricane Sally, whose wind and rain brought debris and damage to local beaches.

"... (A)fter Hurricane Sally, Henderson Beach park needed a lot more help in other ways" than keeping it clear for turtle nesting, Hardy said. Since their initial clean-up of Henderson Beach, the local AFSA chapter has kept up its efforts there, Hardy added.

"Since then, we have gone out a few more times," Hardy said, with Essue leading the effort to find someone to lead the cleaning crew, and to help spread the word about the local AFSA chapter's commitment to Henderson Beach.

The chapter's latest work at Henderson Beach came just a couple of weeks ago, with Airman 1st Class Noah Evans, whose work with the chapter is keeping its lower-ranking members involved, leading the effort.

"Noah was able to rally 53 volunteers, mostly E-5 (staff sergeant) and under, that volunteered about six hours of their time to help out," Hardy said.

Community service is just part of AFSA's mission, according to Hardy. Beyond that, the organization's 100,000 military members and their families work on quality-of-life and economic issues to support the wellbeing of all military personnel and their families.

Additionally, as a federally chartered veteran service organization, AFSA can do lobbying work and otherwise interact with congressional leaders, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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