‘We’ll stay as long as we’re needed,’ National Guard chief says in Kentucky

  • Published
  • By By Sgt. 1st Class Zach Sheely,
  • National Guard Bureau

FRANKFORT, Ky. – With more rain expected, the National Guard is continuing to support civil authorities responding to catastrophic flooding in Eastern Kentucky.

“We’ll stay as long as we’re needed,” Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said during a Sunday visit to the Boone National Guard Center Joint Operations Center to assess damage and ensure the Kentucky Guard is receiving the support it needs.

National Guard assets from multiple states are working around the clock with civil agencies to help Eastern Kentucky communities in the wake of heavy rain and severe flash flooding that displaced hundreds of residents last week. About 200 National Guard members have supported search and rescue, transportation and water and food distribution missions, with more on standby and additional units mustering to provide follow-on support.

Hokanson, and his senior enlisted advisor, SEA Tony Whitehead, met with the Kentucky adjutant general, Army Maj. Gen. Hal Lamberton, and Kentucky Guard members working in the JOC.

“Our hearts go out to all the families and communities affected by these devastating floods,” Hokanson said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the men and women of the Kentucky National Guard and their adjutant general for the work they are doing to help their communities recover from this disaster.

“Because we’re manned, trained and equipped to fight our nation’s wars, we can do just about anything our communities ask us to do.”

The National Guard has rescued or relocated around 500 people rescued/relocated since its activation via a Kentucky state of emergency declaration on July 28 – now elevated to a federal disaster declaration in several counties – following heavy overnight rain and severe flash flooding in many of the rural counties that lie in Kentucky’s Central Appalachia region. Tennessee and West Virginia Guard members were mobilized a few hours later under an Emergency Management Assistance Compact, or EMAC, agreement between the states.

EMAC offers assistance during governor-declared states of emergency or disaster through a responsive, straightforward system that allows states to send personnel, equipment, and commodities to assist with response and recovery efforts in other states.

The Kentucky Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility commander, Lt. Col. Steve Martin, said as soon as helicopter pilots assessed the severity of the situation – standing water several feet in depth and people stranded on their rooftops – they knew it would be an all-out charge to save lives.

“We realized that we would need to deliver a max effort to help everybody in and around the areas of Hazard and Jackson and all of those communities that were flooded and in need,” Martin said. “We’ve put every aviation resource we had against it to include calling in Tennessee and West Virginia, who responded immediately. They were critical in aiding in life-saving measures across Eastern Kentucky and we could not have done it without them.”

Martin said Kentucky Guardsmen recently conducted a dynamic hoist training exercise that has paid dividends during the flood response. In this rescue method, a medic or crew chief is lowered while the aircraft is still on approach.

“This has been a game changer for us,” Martin said, “in expediting our response time and increasing the safety for everyone on board as well as the person that we’re trying to help.”

The multi-state, interagency flood response was built on experience gained from previous natural disasters in the state, said Lamberton, who also oversees Kentucky Emergency Management agency.

After the tornadoes laid waste to parts of Western Kentucky in December 2021, he directed the Kentucky Guard to establish a uniformed Guard member to serve as a liaison and work with each of the state’s 120 county emergency managers.

Enabling the local folks to know more of what the Guard can bring to it came about because of our history of responding to like events,” Lamberton said.

Hokanson, who previously served as Oregon’s adjutant general and as the director of the Oregon Department of Emergency Management, said the power of enduring relationships is paramount in responding to disasters.

“This is one of those many great lessons learned,” Hokanson said. “These are things that we want to share across the 54 (states, territories and the District of Columbia), because relationships at the county level are the basic building block to ensure the National Guard is providing the right resources at the right time.”

One such Guard resource that worked closely with civilian agencies, the Kentucky Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, is one of only two units of its kind in the National Guard. Guardsmen with the 123rd STS patrolled the impacted areas in boats and boots to seek any citizens who were stranded or displaced.

Air Force Master Sgt. Rudy Parsons, a pararescue team leader, or PJ, said that the National Guard could not do it alone, and the interagency cooperation has been extremely valuable.

“It was just spectacular to see everybody come together and how quickly the organization kind of fell into place,” Parsons said.

As part of his role as a PJ, Parsons is also a K-9 handler. He said the Kentucky Guard is home to the only search and rescue dog in the Defense Department: Callie, a five-year-old Dutch Shepherd, with another in training, Pits, a 10-month-old Belgian Malinois. Callie helped locate several people, which led to their rescue. She also found the bodies of others, including four children who were siblings.

“We had a debrief afterwards and we all just kind of mentioned how at least we were able to bring closure to the families because…I can't imagine the pain they're going through having lost all four of their children,” Parsons said. “I think it was definitely a positive impact to be able to get closure in the wake of such a terrible tragedy.”