Kentucky National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy Lowe listened to the story of a woman he rescued from the devastating Kentucky floodwaters on July 28. The cascade of mud and water had ripped her husband from her arms, pushing him downstream and out of sight. The woman, hoisted to safety from a tree by Lowe, assumed her husband had drowned.
But as Lowe listened, the realization struck – he had also rescued her husband a half-hour earlier from another tree a half-mile away.
“Before giving her false hope, Sgt. 1st Class Lowe was able to track down the previously rescued man and confirm his identity,” said 1st Lt. Josh Mains, of the Kentucky National Guard’s 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade. “Lowe and his team informed the distraught lady that her husband was not lost to her, and she was reunited with him later that day.”
Despite the loss of at least 37 lives, National Guard troops from Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia have played critical roles in rescues like these amid flooding recovery efforts in the Bluegrass State.
Ready to rescue from flooding
Heavy rains kicked off flash floods and mudslides in Eastern Kentucky in late July. National Guardsmen sprang into action within an hour of receiving the green light from state leadership, according to Maj. Ryan Wolfe, a MEDEVAC commander in the West Virginia National Guard.
“It shows you how seriously we take our training, to be able to respond to something within about an hour and then be saving lives,” he said. “Our team ended up performing 19 live lifts or hoists, including three dogs, off of rooftops, mountaintops, porches, you name it.”
1st Lt. Madison Witzleb, of the Kentucky National Guard, was at the Meade County Fair on Sunday, July 31, when she got the call. Some friends of hers have relatives in Hazard and Jackson, two towns squarely in the flood’s path.
“As a guardsman, I’ve flown a few missions into isolated areas of Eastern Kentucky to deliver needed supplies to anyone who needs them,” said Witzleb, a UH60M pilot. “It’s been very hard seeing the situation.”
Even so, Witzleb said, her team loves executing these sorts of missions.
“Working the flooding efforts has made me feel very proud in the service I’ve been able to provide,” she said. “I love being able to bring a smile to people’s faces during these hard times.”
‘Big Blue’ & bluegrass
And bringing smiles to weary faces has long been the USO’s specialty. This natural disaster has been no different, with the experienced service organization sending a specialized mobile unit to Kentucky on Aug. 2. Dubbed “Big Blue,” the tricked-out RV is designed to support service members in need, offering amenities like charging stations, snacks and beverages, WiFi, televisions, video game units and lawn games.
A rotating team of approximately 12 drivers, many of them veterans, is prepared to stay anywhere Big Blue is needed for up to two weeks, according to Courtney Sweeney, USO’s senior director of mobile centers.
“We want to make sure we’re there to boost morale,” Sweeney said. “We want to be a safe space for service members when they need to take a deep breath at the end of a hard day. And I hope we’re bringing that feeling of home to guys and girls in Kentucky.”
Kentucky National Guard leadership certainly felt supported by their counterparts in West Virginia and Tennessee, said Lt. Col. John Harvey, a Kentucky National Guard logistics officer. Tennessee sent five Blackhawk helicopters and crews, while West Virginia sent two Blackhawks and two Lakota aircraft with crews to assist with search-and-rescue efforts.
“The support provided by the Tennessee National Guard and West Virginia National Guard were timely and incredibly important,” Harvey said. “As soon as they saw the need, Tennessee and Kentucky immediately sent helicopters to southeastern Kentucky and went to work pulling citizens from the water and from rooftops. Kentucky could not be blessed with better partners during this disaster than those we have with Tennessee and West Virginia.”
Another silver lining amid the flooding, according to Harvey: the catastrophic western Kentucky tornadoes in 2021 that gave his troops valuable training opportunities. Combined with stellar weekend drill and annual training, the harsh events of the past have contributed to an “incredibly admirable” and “totally unselfish” flood response now.
“The soldiers and airmen of the Kentucky National Guard have exceeded all expectations,” he said. “They are true professionals that have risked their lives and sacrificed incredibly to provide lifesaving and life-sustaining support to the citizens of southeastern Kentucky.”Read comments