Earlier this week, the Creek Fire had burned over 200,000 acres, prompted multiple evacuation orders, and trapped hundreds of people. California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency and activated the California National Guard to support efforts to combat the wildfires and conduct rescues. On September 5, two California National Guard aircrews braved the high winds, thick smoke, and scorching flames to rescue more than 200 people trapped in campgrounds by the fire. On September 14, Chief Warrant Officers Joseph Rosamond, Kipp Goding, Irvin Hernandez, Brady Hlebain, Ge Xiong; and Sergeants George Esquival Jr. and Cameron Powell were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions by President Trump.
President Trump presents the soldiers with their awards. (White House)
On September 5, helicopters of the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade were flying in support of firefighting efforts against the Creek Fire. That evening, a UH-60 Blackhawk and CH-47 Chinook crew were tasked with rescuing families trapped by the fire at the Mammoth Pool Campground. En route to the rescue site, state, local, and headquarters officials notified the crews that the mission was too dangerous and instructed them to turn back. However, with selfless determination, both crews continued their mission of mercy into the smoke and flames.
Night set in and, coupled with the thick black smoke rising from the fire below, visibility was nearly zero. Using their night vision goggles, expert flying skill, and professional coordination and teamwork, the aircrews reached the campground. They loaded as many of the victims as they could, many of whom were injured and badly burned, onto the two helicopters and began the perilous flight back through the smoke.
Upon returning and unloading their passengers, they turned right around and made a second rescue flight. After their second return, they were told not to conduct further rescues that night. "You cannot do this," a supervisor told them. "You cannot do it again." They did. The third flight was made through even thicker smoke as the fire burned hard into the night. Despite this, both crews successfully completed a grueling 10-hour mission and rescued 242 people.
Dozens of evacuees aboard the Chinook on the night of September 5 (CA National Guard)
Less than 48 hours after the Mammoth Pool mission, both crews flew another treacherous aerial rescue mission. On the first two attempts, the fire forced them to turn back and they were again advised not to proceed. "You must abort the mission," they were told by officials. They chose to make a third attempt and successfully rescued another 50 people. In the week following these rescues, both crews have continued to fly missions to save stranded individuals threatened by the fire. Their bravery and valor distinguished them and earned them the nation's highest flying honor.
At a ceremony held at a CAL FIRE Hangar in McClellan Park, CA, all seven soldiers were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by President Trump. Behind them were the aircraft that they skillfully crewed into the fire on their rescues. In attendance were distinguished guests including Major General Matthew Beevers, Representatives Doug LaMalfa, Tom McClintock, and Greg Walden, and Governor Gavin Newsom.
The aircraft crewed by the awardees (White House)
President Trump praised the soldiers for the selfless service and dedication to duty. "Our nation is strong because of remarkable individuals like these service members. In the midst of our greatest trials and biggest challenges, America prevails because of the brave and selfless patriots who risk everything so that they may save lives of people, in many cases, that they don't know," the President said. "Today, our country honors their courage, and we are inspired by their example, and we thank God for the blessing and all our blessings that you're safe."
Following the President's remarks, the orders were posted awarding the Distinguished Flying Cross to CW5 Rosamond, CW5 Goding, CW2 Hlebain, CW2 Hernandez, WO1 Ge Xiong, Sgt. Esquivel Jr., and Sgt. Powell. The actions of these brave soldiers reflect the American spirit of strength and perseverance through adversity. President Trump recognized this when he told the soldiers, "Your unyielding determination lifts our nation. You're what makes our nation great."