Imagine a helicopter teetering precariously on the verge of a cliff, performing a one-wheeled landing while risking treacherous landslides to extract an injured hiker then rushing him to safety 5,000 feet below.
Picture a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter hovering above in a mountain canyon, enclosed on three sides by a mere couple of feet, lowering rescuers by hoist to extract seriously injured civilians and take them to the nearest waiting ambulance. At night.
Colorado Soldiers from the High-altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site in Gypsum, Colo.; the Army Aviation Support Facility at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo.; and members of the 2nd Battalion, 135th General Support Aviation don’t have to imagine these scenarios. They’ve lived them.
Providing lifesaving support for local officials and civilian search and rescue organizations, these Guardsmen have put their skills to the test time and again for Colorado communities, because sometimes, just a few minutes can make the difference between life and death.
The Soldiers’ efforts were officially recognized June 1 when Colorado Army National Guard aviators received the prestigious State Award from the National Association for Search and Rescue in recognition of their multiple lifesaving search-and-rescue missions in 2012.
The nomination, made by the Colorado Search and Rescue Board, praised the extraordinary partnership between the Colorado National Guard aviation units, Colorado county sheriffs, and various Colorado SAR teams, which leads to the realized benefit of faster and safer rescue operations.
“When Colorado County Sheriffs need assistance in a SAR operation, they have only one call to make to enlist the support of the on-duty CSRB state SAR coordinator, who then works with the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center to get the Colorado Army National Guard assets to assist,” said Woody Woodward, Alpine Rescue Team mission coordinator who has worked extensively with the Guard.
Lt. Col. Joshua Day, state aviation officer for Colorado Army National Guard, and Maj. Tony Somogyi, HAATS commander, accepted the award on behalf of all Colorado Army National Guard aviation units.
Day said he is extremely proud of the units recognized in the award.
“This isn’t a typical 9-to-5 job,” he said. “We get called in on holidays and odd hours, and you don’t go home until the mission is complete.”
Somogyi said the award was particularly special to him because the nomination came from the civilian SAR community, and noted that Colorado National Guard aviation is called often for missions that involve the use of a hoist – a piece of equipment that most civilian SAR helicopters don’t have.
“It’s incredible what they’re able to accomplish with it,” Somogyi said.
From January through December 2012, Colorado Army National Guard aviation assets participated in 19 missions assisting 13 different counties or civilian SAR organizations, totaling 13 lives saved and three recoveries according to the nomination.
And the Soldiers themselves have taken personal risks to accomplish their missions.
Staff Sgt. Eric Williams knows firsthand the risks involved. His rescue effort involved being lowered in a hoist to retrieve a hiker in serious distress. Williams broke his leg when a fierce gust of wind slammed him against a mountain.
Master Sgt. Gregory Clancy, first sergeant at the High-altitude Army National Guard Training Site, said he can’t emphasize enough what a huge team effort each rescue entails.
“Everyone on this team is a rock star,” he said. “Once we get a call in, these guys come alive and everyone works hard.”
Clancy said the hardest part of being involved in an emergency response is making tough decisions when it comes to the safety of the operation.
“No one wants to go home without accomplishing the mission,” he said, “but when you’re running low on fuel, or the weather conditions are making it impossible, we have to make some difficult decisions for the safety of the mission. That’s really hard to do when you have people who need your help.”
Clancy said the best part of the job is how rewarding it feels to help people in their communities. He notes that many members of the unit actually thrive off the challenges of the job.
“In this business, most of us are adrenaline junkies,” he said. “It’s wonderful to be able to use that to rescue people. We get to do what we love and help save lives.”