HAZARD, Ky. – Airmen from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron rescued 19 stranded residents and two dogs after historic flooding that claimed at least 28 lives in Eastern Kentucky.
The Airmen, assisted by Callie, the only certified search-and-rescue canine in the U.S. military, rapidly deployed to the region July 28 to conduct rescue operations via boat and helicopter for four days, said Maj. Ian Williams, squadron commander. The team of 23 special operators also coordinated 29 rotary aircraft missions, recovered four bodies and helped direct operations that led to the rescue or assistance of 40 additional people.
“We found out about the situation Thursday morning at approximately 8:10 a.m.,” Williams said. “Before we had our tasking to respond, we started having our initial team show up to the squadron to prepare gear in the event that we would have to push out and support. We were officially told to support around 9 and were out the door by 10 o’clock.”
Once given the green light, 17 STS members deployed over the road with boats and trucks, while another six operators and Callie departed via helicopter transport provided by the Kentucky Army Guard’s 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade.
“Local, state and federal agencies all have search and rescue dogs, but what we bring to the table is the ability to get a dog, with its incredible capabilities, to normally inaccessible locations potentially faster,” said Master Sgt. Rudy Parsons, a pararescueman in the squadron and Callie’s handler.
“Callie is able to travel via helicopter, boat, non-standard vehicles, rope systems and can even insert via parachute with her handler in order to bring a high-level capability to accelerate life-saving measures in situations where minutes matter,” Parsons said.
Although Callie is trained in “live-find’ detection” — searching for living or missing people — “she also did a great job of telling us specific locations to investigate more thoroughly to recover fatalities, to help bring closure to those individuals’ families.”
Williams noted the entire mission was a team effort.
“Our success at the 123rd STS wouldn’t be possible without our mission support folks. They’re the first to arrive at the unit when something happens because they know that the vehicles, boats, communications equipment and resupply coordination are make-or-break elements of this sort of mission.”
Master Sgt. Joshua Busch, a combat controller with the squadron, noted that homeland disaster response is a unique task for members of the Air National Guard, who have a dual mission of supporting domestic emergencies as part of the state militia while also supporting global military operations as a component of the U.S. Air Force.
“Unique to the Guard, we aren’t just preparing for war; we are preparing for domestic operations too,” said Busch, who served as a rescue and recovery team leader for the flood response. “I’m most proud of how many guys volunteered to be a part of this mission, to help the community and state start to put this natural disaster behind us.”
The rescue mission was a joint effort involving multiple agencies and civilian volunteer groups, including the Kentucky State Police and Army National Guard troops from Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Two Kentucky Army National Guard medevac crews augmented Kentucky aviation assets already in the area. At the same time, Tennessee sent five UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and crews and West Virginia contributed two Black Hawk helicopters, two UH-72 Lakota aircraft with hoist capability and 14 Soldiers.
“Our relationships with the Army aviation units has been fantastic,” Williams said. “We train with them often and have been in real-world missions with them many times.”