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Alaska, Calif., N.Y. Guard Airmen team up for N.C. rescues

By Eric Durr and Capt. Michael O'Hagan | New York National Guard | Sept. 20, 2018

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2018 Hurricane Response   (Related Link)

LUMBERTON, N.C.-The initial call from the local emergency operations center was that there were "ten plus one" people cut off at a farm by floodwaters who needed to be evacuated on Monday, Sept. 17.

By the time the pararescue Airmen from New York Air National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing and the Alaska Air National Guard's 176th Wing and the California Air Guard's 129th Wing were finished with the mission, they had evacuated 15 people from their homes to a nearby fire station.

The mission, said Capt. Mark Joseloff, a combat rescue officer assigned to the 106th Rescue Wing's 103rd Rescue Squadron, was a perfect example of the Guard's small rescue community working well together.

The plan was for two HH-60 Pave Hawk rescue helicopters - one from California carrying Alaska Air National Guard pararescuemen - and one from New York's 106th Rescue Wing -to head out to the farm together.

Air Guard members from Alaska, New York, California, Kentucky and Oregon are working together as elements of a 18-person Air Guard rescue team based at Naval Air Station Oceana, located outside Virginia Beach as they respond to the effects of Hurricane Florence.

The California/Alaska bird left a little later, Joseloff recalled, so the New York Airmen got there first.

What they saw were a lot of wet marshy areas and what was clearly a turkey farm surrounded by flood waters, said Tech Sgt. Ryan Dush, a 103rd Rescue Squadron Pararescueman.

Their destination was a farmhouse along a road. The house was dry but one end of the road was flooded and at the other end was a sinkhole with an SUV tipping into it, remembered Staff Sgt. Griffin Elzey.

The HH-60 came to a hover and Elzey and Dush were lowered down to the ground using the HH-60's hoist. Their job was to assess the situation, find out who was there and what help they needed, Joseloff said.

What the two Airmen found was a house full of primarily Spanish speaking people, five
kids and two sets of parents and grandparents: 14 in all. One of the girls spoke English and helped communicate.

They were dry, but they were running out of food and were worried about the kids. They were ready to leave, Elzey said.

They could have hoisted the civilians up into the helicopter, but there were power lines nearby. That could have made the hoist operation risky, he and Dush said.

Instead they opted to have the Pave Hawk land at a field about a quarter mile away. The extra safety more than made up for the walk, the two men said.

The people in the house also directed them to a nearby house where the couple lived; a man and a woman in their 60s. He was taking care of the turkey farm and she was a nurse.

The man wanted his wife to get on the helicopter, Dush said. He stayed to look after the farm.

By this time, the Alaska HH-60 had arrived and the two aircraft landed together. They worked together seamlessly to divide the passengers; six on the New York aircraft and nine on the Alaska HH-60, Joseloff said.

The kids were overwhelmed by the whole thing at first, but by the time they landed at the local fire station, the kids were loving it, Dush said.

The parents, though, "had a look of despair," Joseloff remembered.

"At one point the father reached over and held his son's hand for at least three-quarters of the transfer as if to say, ‘there, there, it will be all right,'" he said.

"I'm happy we were able to help but I am sorry for the family," Joseloff added.

There was no drama in this mission, Joseloff said, but that is because the Air Guard pararescue community works so well together.

"Pararescue is very small in the Air Force. You tend to know each other personally or you are familiar with the name," he said. "Everybody just checks their ego at the door."

"The truth is our job is easy," Joseloff said. "Making the save is very enthralling. What I really admire is the people behind all this, making it happen."

"Rescue is a team sport," Joseloff said.

Without the logistics, people, maintainers, planners, other support staff, crew and the pilots, the pararescuemen and combat rescue officers couldn't do their jobs, he emphasized.

"When someone comes up and gives you a hug or says thank you out there and they see you, they don't see the whole story played out behind the scenes, "Dush said. "I wish there was a way to convey that to everybody."