FORT CARSON, Colo. (CBS4) – Usually the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade flies combat missions overseas but when it moved to Fort Carson in 2013 the soldiers knew they could find themselves on missions much closer to home.
Planning to use the 4th CAB to assist the Colorado National Guard began after 2012’s Waldo Canyon Fire.
“During the Waldo Canyon Fire, this aviation brigade was not here,” said Maj. Eric Carlson, Battalion Executive Officer, 2nd Battalion, 4th Aviation Brigade. “Once the 4th CAB started to stand over Fort Carson, it was identified early that it was possible another fire could happen in Colorado or another natural disaster in which our helicopters would be needed.”
The first of those natural disasters was the Black Forest Fire, which started a year later.
“We could see the smoke to the north and everybody kind of went into ready mode,” said Capt. Alec Finlay, Battalion operations Officer, 2nd Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment. “Just literally waiting to see if we were going to be called on to take action. We were preparing. We were literally waiting for the call to launch.”
Less than 24 hours after the fire started the 4th CAB was on the front lines, flying Chinooks and Black Hawks and using bambi buckets to drop water on the flames.
Over the course of fighting the wildfire from the air, the brigade flew 914 missions and dropped 689,970 gallons of water.
The soldiers on the ground had a different mission, one that involved taking off uniforms to take on the role of American Red Cross volunteers.
“The call came out from the Fort Carson Chapter of the Red Cross that they needed support when the residents went back in the Black Forest,” CW2 Brennan Avants said.
Normally Avants is a Black Hawk pilot for Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment, but during the Black Forest Fire, he found himself on the ground helping his neighbors.
“We mobilized in less than 24 hours a group of 22 volunteers broken down into shifts to work through the weekend, 12 hour days,” he said.
Joining Avants in the volunteer effort was Sgt. Justin Hill, a Black Hawk mechanic with Delta Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment.
“It was a shock because I’ve never seen a wildfire before in my life,” Hill said. “But I was willing to go help with the 4th CAB to go out fight the fires with the Black Hawks or to be here to make sure the Black Hawks flew, but when that wasn’t available to me to do I wanted to help some other way with the Red Cross.
“It was very heartwarming for me. I’m from Houston, Texas, and we’ve had to use assistance from the Red Cross before so to be able to towards these people was very, very … I can’t even talk about it now.”
Those volunteers handed out supplies at stations set up in the Black Forest.
“We were out there not in our uniform because we were in a volunteer capacity,” Avants said, “but they knew. The Red Cross volunteers that were actually wearing their vests and were deployed from all over the United States to assist, they made it a point to call us their Army guys and gals out there.”
For those military volunteers, helping their friends and neighbors was very personal.
Avants’ daughter was 7 at the time of the Black Forest Fire and she was knew he was out helping people who had lost their homes.
“She had this stuffed animal that she call Bright Eyes, a sea turtle with one eye missing,” he recalled. “She said ‘I want you to give this to some deserving girl who lost all her toys.’
“That day one little girl came along with her mom and her other child, a boy and I could tell that they were hard hit and devastated.
“We exchanged numbers and that weekend my wife and I collected up stuff from my daughter — more toys and gently worn clothes — that she wanted to donate to this little girl. They were about the same age and size.
“We also we went to a couple of stores for the boy because we don’t have a boy and made arrangements to drop it off with the mother at work. For me that was probably one of the most heartwarming things. Just dealing with the affected population out there was heart wrenching and heart warming at the same time.”
For Hill, the experience almost left him speechless.
“The first person I helped gave me a big hug and just told me ‘Thank You’ and that right there was good enough for me,” he said. “To just help one person and that was the biggest thing that I took out of that. To know that I was there in a time of need and that Red Cross would be there for me and the military.”
But the Black Forest Fire was not the only time the 4th CAB would be tapped to help Coloradans.
Last September the rain started falling and didn’t stop for days. Overnight on the 11th, the mountain streams and rivers overflowed banks, sending flood waters first into mountain towns then out onto the plains in the coming days.
Once again, the 4th CAB watched the news unfold on their TV screens.
“I honestly told my guys it was unlikely — that was Thursday (the 12th) — that we would launch on this thing on Friday and sure as shootin’ we were wheels up in the afternoon and actually rescuing people in Boulder that night,” Finlay said.
Finlay said the soldiers “went straight into mission mode.”
“The thing that was unique at night was that you had people who were up there flashing their flash lights at helicopters. That was a very easy to identify who wanted us there and who didn’t there was a lot of residents who do not want evacuate at that time so it was easy to identify.”
The 4th CAB flew almost five hours that first night and up to 10 hours over the course of the next several days. The regiment covered Boulder County rescues, allowing the Colorado National Guard to focus its efforts in Larimer County.
Even with rain and cold, the terrain and flying at an altitude of 6,000 feet were the tricky parts
“Getting down into the ravines and canyons and pulling out people when you’re surrounded by trees and obstacles, a lot of my thought is it was a lot like flying in Afghanistan up there,” Carlson said. “We do a lot of mountain training out here and it paid off in up in Boulder as well.”
For the flight crews used to flying combat missions — or, more recently, dropping water onto burning homes — those rescues in the Colorado canyons had a very personal connection.
“The fire, although it was personal because it was our neighbor’s homes, as aviators we didn’t get the face-to-face interaction,” said Carlson. “You got that at the floods. You got folks giving you hugs as they got off the helicopter and thanking you. That was different the personal interaction during the floods versus the fires.”
Carlson said when they rescued residents you could see that they were almost instantly relieved when they saw members of the military.
“There was no question in their mind, whether it was getting on the hoist of the Medevac helicopter or getting on the ramp of the Chinook, they knew that they were going to be taken care of,” Finlay said. “It was almost an instant turnaround of their attitudes on the ground versuses once they got in the helicopters.”
For Carlson, flying one of those Chinooks involved in the rescues, the real human impact came a bit later.
“When you get into the mission there’s not a lot of looking in the back of the aircraft and there’s not a lot of thinking about anything other than the mission at hand and it wasn’t until we all shut down for the night and started watching the local news — some of the reunions of families and stuff that it starts to hit you. But during flying the mission it’s mission focus.”
That mission for the 4th CAB meant rescuing 1,082 people and an uncounted number of animals. For some residents, it took returning time after time to make sure they were ready to go.
“I would say the one thing that sticks with me the most is the people who live that area are very prepared. They live through harsh winters they’ve got stockpiles of food and water,” said Finlay.
“Flying over some of these places and looking at the devastation surrounding their house, stopping over their house at a high hover and they’re waving us off. Saying ‘We don’t need help, we don’t help’ and I would send my medic down anyway to at least go talk to these guys and say, ‘Hey you’re cut off, you’re not going to drive anywhere.’
“We’d come back a couple hours later and they’d wave us down and we’d send a Medevac down and they’d come up with bags, they were ready to go. I’ll never forget seeing some of the looks on their faces as we left the area and they could actually see some of the destruction.”
Finlay said residents often began to appreciate the full scope of the disaster from the air.
“That happened to me several times. Being able to pull those guys and seeing them walk up to the door of the aircraft and give us the thumbs up for being able to get them out of there — that sticks with me the most.”
Among those rescued were students attending several camps in the area. Carlson said it was an experience he never imagined in his military career.
“It’s not often we get to put kids on the helicopters,” he said.
“When the helicopters landed, the first responders, the firefighters and some of our guys that we had put on the ground to manage the kids and their backpacks and all their supplies on to the helicopters was pretty impressive,” he said. “They were in single file lines walking right up the helicopters. Neat, orderly, a lot of them with big smiles on their faces.”
The executive officer was quick to point out, the 4th CAB did not go it alone.
“What was unique here is it didn’t matter what uniform you were wearing,” he said. “If you were a firefighter, member of the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department, an airport manager at Boulder … it was a team working towards a collective effort.
“We did the mission that we do all the time, which is fly. Our medics are doing the hoists and treatment and the crew chiefs are running the aircraft. It was the firefighters and the sheriff’s department who knew those people, who lived with those people getting on the aircraft, who made a difference in our mission.”
Whether fighting fires or rescuing flood victims, the 4th CAB was proud to have been ready, proud to have served its nation in a different way.
“It was incredible being able to help a local community, the Front Range as a whole,” said Avants. “A lot of us have done a lot of combat deployments and to actually be able to assist the population where we live and reside in? It was very heartwarming. And the mission really needed to be done. They needed assistance, and it was great to put on that different hat just to help the American population.”
“There’s not a soldier in the brigade that isn’t fighting to get on that mission and go assist,” Carlson said. “It’s a lot more gratifying doing it here at home. We get to do a lot overseas in combat, but these are our families, our neighbors, Americans. That we were able to assist, it’s different. They’re both gratifying things. They are both serving our country.”