Story and photos, Ekland Durousseau, Red Cross contributor 

For many, the iconic red and white trucks of the Red Cross embody comfort and hope in the wake of a disaster. The familiar sight of volunteers leaning out of the side window or backdoor handing out food or supplies with a big smile can bring a bit of peace to those cleaning up their home. 

While most of the trucks drive from neighborhood to neighborhood offering water, snacks and supplies, there are a few that stay patiently at headquarters waiting for the chance to help make a difference. 

When a relief operation has ten or more emergency response vehicles (ERV) a special truck is activated. The mechanical emergency response vehicle (MERV) is part of a small but mighty fleet of repurposed response trucks that carry tools and supplies to fix ERVs when they are supporting a community after a disaster. There are only four MERVs in the entire American Red Cross fleet. Each MERV carries a team of specialized volunteer mechanics who can handle almost any problem the vehicles run into. 

John Keesling, volunteer national fleet operator for the American Red Cross

Tall and lean, with twinkling eyes, and earrings that would make a pirate blush, John Keesling is the national fleet operator and mechanic responsible for maintaining the 17 ERVs supporting affected neighborhoods during a recent response. Keesling checks all ERVs before they head out and takes care of all mechanical issues that occur on a disaster relief operation. 

“I do what I can to help our ERV drivers,” said Keesling. “They are out there helping clients, so I do what I can to keep them safe. I just try to keep them safe.”  

Keesling came to the Red Cross in 2005 after winning a long battle with stomach cancer. The outpouring of support during his illness made him realize how powerful it can be when someone holds out a helping hand. 

“I was taking and something told me I needed to start giving back. So that’s what I’m doing, I’m giving back.” 

Keesling wasn’t sure the Red Cross was the right place for him, so he made a deal with himself. 

“I told myself I’d give it five years. That was almost 15 years ago,” said Keesling as he stands and chuckles to himself. “I’m working on the third five.” 

Starting out as an ERV driver during the response for Hurricane Katrina, Keesling helped support a few other activities, like sheltering, but the moment he discovered the MERV team, he never looked back.  “I found my niche,” said Keesling as he shouts and slaps the side of the ERV. “I’m here! This is my baby!” 

Keesling and Nepveux reminisce about the hardest repair they have ever made on a response vehicle – a backdoor lock! 

Keesling travels with fellow mechanic Anthony Nepveux, who began volunteering in 2012 as an ERV driver during Superstorm Sandy and has deployed for sheltering but, just like Keesling, he is passionate about supporting ERVs and the volunteers that drive them.  

Keesling and Nepveux have replaced or repaired everything on a response truck at least once. “Sometimes you have to be innovative,” said Keesling with a knowing smile. Some of the more complicated repairs can range from propping up an air conditioning unit in the back of a truck to fixing the backdoor lock.  

Keesling diagnoses an ERV from the North Texas region with an A/C issue caused by a buildup of water from the compressor. The solution – a quick burst of air to clear the hose.

“One of the worst times I have ever had fixing something on one of these trucks was repairing the backdoor lock,” said Keesling. “You can either fix it in five seconds or five days.” Nepveux laughs out loud and, with a thick Louisiana accent, quickly agrees. “That was the first thing I tried to fix. Everyone there had been working on it for hours with no result. I asked if I could try and it just snapped into place.” 

While Keesling speaks lovingly of the MERV, he hasn’t named her. “Well, she’s not mine and I don’t feel right about giving her a name unless I know we’re going to be together for a while. I hope they let me have her,” said Keesling wistfully. “I don’t know if they will, but I sure hope they do.” 

The day before Keesling is scheduled to fly home he gets his wish. The MERV is now officially assigned to him and he can drive her home to live at his chapter. With a playful grin, Keesling declares he has the perfect name for the truck. 

Keesling reveals her name. 

“Well, I thought about it and she’s has been through a lot. She has driven through some pretty tough terrain and helped feed and deliver supplies to people in their worst moments, so she strikes me as sort of a warrior.” Keesling pauses dramatically, then exclaims, “She is Xena, the Red Cross warrior princess travelling with her horde of madmen!”