Some people go more than the extra mile, exceeding contributions of the average man or woman when it comes to benefitting others, not necessarily with monetary donations, but certainly with sweat and toil.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Janna Ybarra and Firefighter James Levell, lead firefighter at Edwards 812th Civil Engineer Squadron, both qualify for that characteristic, a trait which garnered them honors during the third inning at the JetHawks baseball game Aug. 24 in Lancaster. Ybarra and Levell received the Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Military Service Before Self Award, presented to individuals for their extraordinary service to the U.S. Air Force and community.
Ybarra was honored as an active duty service member and Levell as a civilian.
Ybarra’s recognition came for her Operation Strong Heart Project, the creation of care boxes distributed to active duty troops. She described Operation Strong Heart as a “foundation I created to assemble mental health kits for active duty members and their families from Edwards Air Force Base.”
“I started making kits with my own money in my own house in 2017. In 2018, I began looking to make it a bigger project to support more people. In 2019, I paired up with the Chief Master Sgt. Ian Eishen, command chief master sergeant for the 412th Test Wing at Edwards, the Civ-Mil Foundation and Merrill Lynch,” Ybarra said. “This year we’ve been able to create 150 kits.”
What she dubbed a ‘Knapsack of Hope’ comes with this saying, “A star to remind you to keep shining; A paper clip to help you hold your things together; A penny so you are never broke; A Band-Aid to help you heal when you are hurt; A rubber band to help you stretch beyond your limits.”
Her efforts gained widespread support, not only on the base, but also from the surrounding community — elected officials and business leaders as well as community movers and shakers.
Levell said it surprised him to learn a day before the event that he had been chosen as an award recipient.
“I lead a crew of firefighters, normally four.” At Edwards, Levell said, they respond mainly to medical calls “and an occasional fire. We go to a lot of fires in the surrounding communities for mutual aid.” He served almost 20 years as a firefighter and has been at Edwards since 2006.
Prior to the ball game, people worked on assembling care boxes for Ybarra’s project.
Lancaster resident John Hart, a retired movie studio lighting professional, was busy preparing boxes to be filled with inspirational reading materials, stationary and other objects. One of the books, “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand was a No. 1 New York Times Bestseller — a World War II story of survival, resilience and redemption.
When asked how Hart became involved, he said, “We’re friends with the organizers.” His wife, Cathy Hart, is dean at the Antelope Valley College — Palmdale Center.
“I am so appreciative that the community cares enough about us on base that they set aside a night at the ballpark to recognize us,” said Brig. Gen. E. John “Dragon” Teichert, commander of the 412th Test Wing.
“I think the world of Tech. Sergeant Ybarra for her vision in finding a way to genuinely care for airmen and their families,” Teichert said.
Bret Banks, executive director of Antelope Valley Air Quality Management District and president of the Antelope Valley Board of Trade, said, “I think it’s terrific, the fact that they’re recognizing these folks for the hard work they do. Edwards is a critical component to the Antelope Valley and the nation.”
“It’s a great idea to send care packages to the people that are deployed. I’ve only built boxes. I haven’t filled them. This is our second year (of participating),” Banks said of himself and his wife, Suzanne.
Robyn Lawhon, associate resident director for the Merrill Lynch Wealth Management Office in Lancaster, said, “The past three years have taught me what an honor it is to be able to recognize those that serve our country and their community in extraordinary ways.”
From the ball field where the crowd cheered Ybarra and Levell, they headed to a suite on the stadium’s upper level. There they were greeted by community officials — some elected, others from business associations.
Clayton Fowler, the field representative for Congressman Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., presented Ybarra and Levell with Certificates of Special Congressional Recognition for outstanding service to the community.
Jack Danielson, on behalf of State Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, and State Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, presented the honorees with Certificates of Recognition for extraordinary service to the United States Air Force.
Chuck Bostwick, assistant field deputy for Los Angeles County 5th District Supervisor Kathryn Barger, presented Certificates of Commendation for dedicated service to the affairs of the community and for civic pride (demonstrated) by numerous contributions.
Bostwick said although the majority of Edwards Air Force Base is in Kern County, with only a portion in Los Angeles County, “we are proud to lay claim to a portion of it.”
Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer gave the honorees Certificates of Recognition, congratulating them for receiving the award. “This is a community that lives and breathes military,” Hofbauer said.
Banks, on behalf of the AV Board of Trade, presented them with Certificates of Appreciation for extraordinary service to the U.S. Air Force and community.
“We thank both of you,” Banks said, “for the efforts you put in for the Air Force Base and the Antelope Valley.”