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NEWS | Oct. 11, 2016

Citizen-Soldiers come to the rescue in Florida

By Maj. Colleen Krepstekies 107th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

St. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – It was a neighbor who heard the old man’s horn honking and then saw him stuck in his car with it partially underwater, as Hurricane Matthew was about to make landfall. The 80-year old man couldn’t walk so the neighbor pulled him from the car, set him down by a tree and drove away, calling 911.

After having made a last-minute decision to evacuate, the old man backed out of his driveway, drove down the road and then plunged his car into a ditch with about five feet of water.

It was Thomas “Lee” Ashlock, a realtor living in St. Augustine Beach, who was dispatched to the scene to carry the man to safety. Ashlock, who wears many hats, is a part-time police officer who also serves as an Army Captain in the Florida National Guard.

“We couldn’t leave him out there because he wouldn’t have made it,” said Ashlock, who was at the St. Augustine Beach Police station when the neighbor called. “We see him and he’s literally by a tree shaking and he was about to go hypothermic and he had two dogs in the car. So, we got him, carried him about 100 yards and put him into another law enforcement vehicle.”

Once Hurricane Matthew neared the coast of Florida and was declared a Category 4 storm on Wednesday, Ashlock got the green light to don his law enforcement uniform. He also got permission to call on two of his soldiers who were called to state active duty to help him respond to distress calls and provide disaster support alongside their local law enforcement in St. Johns County.

As another police officer drove the older man to Flagler Hospital, Army Spc. John Shirley saved the old man’s terrified dogs.

“I go into this mission thinking I’m going to do typical things like fill sandbags,” said Shirley. “But no, I find myself trudging through chest deep water rescuing animals, rescuing people and interacting with the community.”

Versatile and well-trained, local law enforcement officials and Florida’s Citizen-Soldiers demonstrated seamless integration and the right set of capabilities.

“We figured that there would be a certain amount of people who stayed behind regardless of the mandatory evacuation,” said Army Spc. Brett Hardwick. “We literally drove through every neighborhood we could, even the ones that were flooded, because law enforcement couldn’t reach those because they don’t have the assets or the vehicles that we do.”

Hardwick, a 20-year-old Florida National Guardsman and full-time college student, was the second of two Soldiers in Ashlock’s unit who responded to Florida’s northeast coastline communities.

They began with health and welfare checks throughout St. Augustine Beach, an area hard hit, soon after the storm passed.

“Any house that had a vehicle or had lights on, we went up and knocked on the door, made sure they were okay, as far as health and overall wellbeing and went from there,” Hardwick said.

The two Florida National Guard Soldiers patrolled every corner of St. Johns County’s east coast with their commander, Capt. Ashlock. They winched trees off beaches and people’s cars and checked for dangerous items that winds might have blown ashore.

Damage varied by neighborhood. Parts of the beach community had houses missing only a few shingles whereas other neighborhoods had signs of significant flooding. According to Shirley, even houses on stilts showed watermark stains partway up the door.

Local residents emerging from the storm to face the damage caused by Matthew reacted with smiles and handshakes to local emergency responders and Florida National Guardsmen. Ashlock said he and his Soldiers felt that their presence was a bit of a morale booster.

“They’re super excited that, one, the National Guard is there and two, that they were so quick,” said Ashlock. “Everyone was thanking us for coming, thanking us for our service to our country, and saying we’re so glad you’re here.”