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Kentucky Guardsmen deploy for Hurricane Irma response operations

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Soldiers from the Kentucky Army National Guard's 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade departed from the Kentucky Air National Guard Base here yesterday for the Caribbean to assist with rescue and recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

Approximately 20 Soldiers from Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 238th Aviation, deployed to the Virgin Islands with two UH-60 Blackhawks equipped for medical evacuations. Six Airmen from the Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Special Tactics Squadron also deployed as part of Kentucky's response to provide search and rescue.

"Our main job is to focus on humanitarian efforts and provide medical evacuation and triage as well as patient transfer from hurricane-affected areas in the Caribbean, especially the Virgin Islands," said 1st Lt. John Kerr, a Blackhawk Pilot with the 2/238th. "The mission will be to go where others cannot to rescue and aid any civilian personnel we can."

The Blackhawks were loaded into a C-17 Globemaster III from the Hawaii Air National Guard's 204th Airlift Squadron and are expected to begin rescue operations as soon as they arrive in the Caribbean.

All the Soldiers going are trained in rescue hoist operations and swift-water rescue, and can provide expedient critical care en route from hospital to hospital in the area.

With Hurricane Harvey barely in the rearview mirror, and the potential for more hurricanes to follow Irma, the operational tempo of Soldiers in units like these has been at peak levels.

"It's always somewhat hectic at times like these but our leadership is very good at planning and keeping us involved," added Kerr. “Morale is very high, and everyone is excited to be a part of the mission."

It is of the upmost importance for the Soldiers to have perfect communication.

"The hardest part of the mission will be to make sure everyone is on the same sheet of music and communicating effectively," Kerr said.

The unit is heading to the Caribbean without any real timeframe for mission completion.

"We are planning to provide support for a couple of weeks,” said veteran Blackhawk pilot Chief Warrant Officer Steve Knight. “From there we'll re-evaluate and see if we need to swap people out, pull back or whatever the case may be.”

Knight brings more than 38 years of experience to the mission and also has his son as one of the crew members.

63rd TAB's brigade commander, Col. Dwayne Lewis, was on hand for the flight crews’ departure and couldn't be more confident in their capabilities.

"Kentucky's aviators and crew members are highly trained in their craft and fully prepared to provide support to our neighbor states," Lewis said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with them as they work to assist residents who have been affected by Hurricane Irma and the potential historic devastation in the Caribbean and Southern Atlantic states."

The Kentucky Army Guard and the 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade have extensive experience with hurricane rescue and recovery operations going back more than 15 years.