By Kate Quesada

A local airport became home to some of the U.S. Army’s paratroopers last month in the days following Hurricane Irma, but when plans changed for the troops they helped their hosts return to business as usual.
Lakeland’s SUN ’n FUN Expo Campus and the Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE) at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport suffered the loss of hundreds of trees and flooded structures when Hurricane Irma passed through the area, work that CEO John “Litem” Leenhouts felt would take weeks to repair.

“We were fortunate none of our structures sustained any major damage,” said Leenhouts. “But the devastation to our beautiful trees, flooding and debris from the storm was going to require a major clean up.”

However, when the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division Task Force All American Lift, supported by the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command from Fort Bragg, NC, requested the airport’s facilities for a staging area to help victims of the hurricane, Leenhouts and other airport officials were happy to oblige. A day later, more than 300 Paratroopers aboard 115 military vehicles arrived at the airport, turning the SUN ’n FUN campus into a vehicle compound and Hangar A into a barracks.

“We’re honored to host the 82nd in their efforts to help Florida,” said SUN ’n FUN Air Operations Director Greg Gibson.

But two days later, the troopers received word that their mission was changed and they were heading back to North Carolina.

“This gave them some down time, but time off is not how the 82nd operates,” said Gibson. “First Sargeant Charles E. Vaughn Jr. came to me with an offer: the 82nd Paratroopers wanted to help clean up SUN ‘n FUN.”
“We came down here to help Florida recover from Irma, and that’s what we’re going to do,” said Vaughn. “After seeing what this facility is to Lakeland and its mission with local kids, I can’t think of a better place for us to get busy.”

According to Gibson, it took the troops only six hours to restore the campus to working order.

“Paratroopers cut and hauled trees and debris, cleared creeks and helped load relief aircraft with supplies headed to the Keys,” said Gibson, who added that thanks to their efforts, no scheduled events had to be cancelled at the campus due to the storm.

For more information on SUN ’n FUN, located at 4175 Medulla Rd. in Lakeland, call (863) 644-2431 or visit

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Assignment Editor Kate Quesada started working at the Osprey Observer in 2004 after graduating from the University of South Florida with a masters degree in Mass Communications. Since then, she has held various positions at the paper and has been working as the assignment editor since January 2020. She lives in Lithia with her husband Mike and sons Dylan and Max and stays active in the community on school PTA boards and volunteering with local organizations.