by Maj. Dale Greer
123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
8/31/2015 - LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Chief
Master Sgt. Pat Malone had seen a lot in his 23 years as a
pararescueman for the U.S. military, including dicey combat extractions
in Iraq and Afghanistan and more than a decade's worth of civilian
search-and-rescue missions in Alaska.
But none of it prepared him for the devastation he saw firsthand when he
and 21 fellow Kentucky Air National Guardsmen deployed to New Orleans
Naval Air Station 10 years ago today as part of efforts to evacuate the
victims of Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flood.
"This was, by and large, the worst site of devastation I have ever seen
in my entire career," said Malone, who was the chief enlisted manager
for the Kentucky Air Guard's 123rd Special Tactics Squadron in 2005 and
retired from the service in 2012.
"The sheer magnitude of it -- and the conditions that our guys worked in
-- was the most horrific I'd seen in 23 years of service."
Chief Master Sgt. Jon Rosa, a Kentucky combat controller who also
deployed with the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron and retired in 2009,
"New Orleans is usually a place of such revelry," said Rosa, then the
squadron's superintendent of combat controllers. "But it was like a
scene out of 'The Twilight Zone' to be in downtown New Orleans and hear
total silence except for the sloshing of flood waters. I just couldn't
believe this was America."
But it was America, and thousands of New Orleaneans were stranded
without provisions amid a sea of sewage- and chemical-laced water
covering nearly 80 percent of the city.
Rosa, Malone and 20 other Kentucky special tactics troops were among the
first military search-and-rescue troops to arrive in the stricken city
and begin extracting trapped citizens starting Aug. 31.
The Kentucky forces joined up with about 25 other special tactics troops
from across the Air National Guard, including Alaska's 212th Rescue
Squadron, California's 131st Rescue Squadron, New York's 102nd Rescue
Squadron and Oregon's 125th Special Tactics Squadron.
Patrolling the city in Zodiac motorboats and other vehicles, the
Kentucky-led contingent rescued 1,292 people, sometimes by cutting
through roofs to extract trapped residents.
"We had the ability to go through the city and conduct searches where no
one else could reach at the time," Malone said. "We launched from four
to 14 boats a day, running about 14-hour shifts in the water."
Once evacuees climbed aboard the Zodiacs, they were transported to
makeshift helicopter landing zones set up along portions of the
interstate highway system that weren't submerged by flood waters.
The landing zones were cleared by saw-wielding combat controllers who
cut down light poles to remove obstructions and then marked the spots
with spray paint so information like communications frequencies would be
visible from the air, Rosa said.
After an LZ was established, combat controllers would make radio contact
with any of the three airborne controlling authorities -- entities like
an Air Force AWACS plane -- and advise that evacuees were ready for
As helicopters began to roll in, the controllers would direct their safe
flight into and out of the landing zones using the communications gear
they carried on their backs.
One particularly productive LZ became so active that a new helicopter
was landing every 50 seconds for 48 straight hours, Rosa said.
"For a while, I would imagine it was the busiest airport on the face of the earth," he noted.
By the time the Kentucky Airmen returned home Sept. 7, the Air Guard
special tactics contingent had controlled the flights of 3,179 sorties
responsible for the evacuation of 11,927 people.
Working conditions were challenging, to say the least. Most troops got
less than six hours of sleep a night, and the constant exposure to
contaminated water caused rashes and minor chemical burns on some of the
Airmen, Malone said.
"These guys were working in a giant cesspool contaminated with any
chemical in anyone's garage, oil, gas, deceased animals and sewage," he
said. "It was a giant petri dish. But they knew that what they were
doing was important. They chose to be totally selfless and help fellow
citizens of the United States. They're the biggest heroes on the planet
as far as I'm concerned."
Rosa noted that many New Orleans residents seemed to agree.
"All the folks we rescued down there were so thankful," he said. "I had
about 20 people come up and hug me while I was trying to control
helicopter landings. That's very self-satisfying."