Airlift operation evacuates 1,000 U.S. citizens from St. Maarten; 17 Kentucky Air Guardsmen returning home today, 45 more deploying to support Irma rescue missions

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Dale Greer
  • 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Twelve members of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Airlift Wing and two of the unit’s C-130 aircraft helped evacuate more than 1,000 U.S. citizens from the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Maarten Sept. 9-10, flying them to safety in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

The Kentucky Airmen, who personally evacuated more than 400 people, were part of a team that included aircraft and Airmen from the New York Air Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing and the Puerto Rico Air Guard’s 156th Airlift Wing, said. Maj. Aaron Zamora, operations officer for Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron. Together, the three units evacuated 1,028 U.S. citizens in 11 flights.

The rescue mission was facilitated by 12 special operators from the Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, who provided air traffic control for evacuation flights at Phillipsburg Airport in St. Maarten. Those Airmen are expected to return to Louisville today, pending further assignments.

With the evacuation of U.S. citizens from St. Maarten largely complete, the 12 Airmen and two C-130s that comprised Kentucky’s piece of the airlift mission are now awaiting further taskings in Puerto Rico.

For Master Sgt. Chris Hodge, a loadmaster in the 123rd Airlift Wing, the evacuation was one of the most rewarding missions of his career.

“It was an incredible experience,” Hodge said. “I’ve been with the unit since December 2008, and we always train, and train and train, performing homeland missions that serve an essential purpose. But obviously, a mission like this serves a much greater purpose. When you’re talking about rescuing people and saving lives, that takes things to a whole different level.”

Many of the evacuees, who ranged in age from toddlers to the elderly, personally thanked Hodge and his colleagues for their service, expressing deep gratitude for airlifting them off an island that has been largely devastated by the category-5 storm.

“A lot of them were in tears because they’ve lost everything,” Hodge said. “All they left that island with was their passport, their ID and the clothes on their back. But they were also thankful to be alive, to have survived it, and to be going to a safe place.”

Dozens of evacuees have posted to the wing’s Facebook page to express their appreciation, many of whom Hodge recognizes “from having been on our aircraft.”

“So grateful to you all for evacuating my daughter and I from the devastation in St. Maarten,” one Facebook user wrote. “Thank you all from the bottom of my heart!”

“Y'all rescued my (American University of the Caribbean) family from St. Maarten and I am eternally grateful!!,” another wrote. “Real heroes don't wear capes, they wear dog tags! Y'all are my heroes!”

“You took 50 children and moms from (American University of the Caribbean) out, including myself and my 2 children,” a third person wrote. “When I saw Kentucky on your uniforms, I knew we were in good hands!! Strong, gentle, kind gestures for everyone on (board) was remarkable!!”

Hodge said the outpouring of support has been truly humbling.

“We all take a lot of pride in what we do, and we deeply appreciate the opportunity that we get to be involved in something like this,” he said.

The Kentucky Air Guard currently has more than 60 Airmen deployed to Florida and the Caribbean in support of Hurricane Irma rescue operations.

One group of five Airmen, from the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, has been conducting search-and-rescue missions on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, in conjunction with the Kentucky Army National Guard’s 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade. As of Sunday night, those Airmen have controlled multiple helicopter landing zones and evacuated numerous victims by hoisting them to UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters for evacuation, Zamora said.

Those Airmen also are expected to return to Louisville today, pending further assignments.

Meanwhile, 45 members of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Medical Group Detachment 1 deployed from Frankfort, Kentucky, today for Camp Blanding in Starke, Florida. The Airmen will stage there with seven truck-loads of equipment and supplies to provide medical care for residents displaced by the hurricane.

“I’m extremely proud of our Airmen in Detachment 1,” said Col. Michael Cooper, commander of the 123rd Medical Group. “They have been training for the past seven years to perform their mission, and have performed admirably in numerous exercises. But this is their first chance out of the gate to perform the mission in a real-world situation. They are superbly qualified and prepared to render world-class medical care.”