Dramatic Creek Fire rescues culminate in presidential commendation for pilots, crew

AvatarBy Dan Parsons | September 17, 2020

Estimated reading time 5 minutes, 48 seconds.

Seven soldiers with the California Army National Guard were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross personally by President Donald Trump on Sept. 14, just nine days after the mission on which they plucked more than 200 people from the path of raging wildfires.

The Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight,” was bestowed by the president on Chief Warrant Officers Joseph Rosamond, Kipp Goding, Irvin Hernandez, Brady Hlebain and Ge Xiong, and Sgts. George Esquivel and Cameron Powell. The soldiers are assigned to the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade of the California Army National Guard.

California National Guard Creek Fire helicopter rescue crews
According to CH-47F pilot CW5 Joe Rosamond, “The crew on both aircraft made [the rescues] possible since at anytime anyone of them could have called it over.” California National Guard Photo
“Today it’s my profound honor to award seven extraordinary soldiers with the Distinguished Flying Cross for their remarkable courage to rescue their fellow citizens,” Trump said Sept. 14 during the medal ceremony Cal Fire’s Hangar in McClellan Park, California, standing in front of the CH-47 Chinook and UH-60 Black Hawk used in the rescue.

“Just over one week ago, these brave pilots and crew members of the California Army National Guard embarked on a harrowing mission,” Trump said. “As the sun set on Sept. 5, they boarded two helicopters that are behind me. Then, they flew into blazing flames, raging wind — and it was raging — and blinding smoke to rescue families who were trapped by the massive Creek Fire at the Mammoth Pool Campground. . . . After 10 grueling hours, they completed their mission, having saved the lives of an astounding 242 people.”

President Trump delivers remarks at a ceremony recognizing the California National Guard. White House Communications Agency Screenshot

That particular mission pushed the limits of both the helicopters and crews, as related to Vertical by some of the pilots and crew. Six days later, a call came that initiated a whirlwind of activity that culminated in the president commending them in person.

All seven soldiers were still fighting fires Friday, Sept. 11, out of Fresno, California, when they were abruptly told to fly back to base at Stockton Metropolitan Airport, about 120 miles (193 kilometers) northwest, according to Rosamond, the pilot in command of the Chinook.

They were ordered to fly the aircraft used in the Creek Fire rescue to McClellan Park, in North Sacramento by 10 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 13, so they could be tested for Covid-19 at 11:30 a.m., sharp, Rosamond said. None of the seven knew the purpose of the orders.

“Saturday evening I opened up my Twitter and saw POTUS had tweeted his trip to Sacramento,” Rosamond said in an email. “I then put two and two together but it wasn’t 100 percent. Once we arrived and linked up with [Maj. Gen. Matthew] Beevers [assistant adjutant general for California Joint Force Headquarters], he asked us if we wanted to know what the award was. We discussed and said no, let it be a surprise. He did, however, let us know that this was for POTUS.”

At the rehearsal, the group of soldiers met with the president’s military aid, who spilled the beans by explaining the president would pin the DFC on their chests.

“We all let out a collective Oooooohhhh!!!! And proceeded to make him feel bad for letting the cat out of the bag,” Rosamond said.

At 7 a.m. on Monday, the awardees and families arrived at the Cal Fire Hangar for another rapid Covid test and waited several hours for Secret Service agents to clear the venue ahead of the president’s arrival.

“Cal Fire hooked it up and let all our families into the air attack base to hang out, gave us food, and turned on a movie for the kids,” Rosamond said.

Trump delivered his remarks at 12:23 p.m., according to a White House transcript. Then the commendation was read by the military aid.

“The President of the United States hereby awards the Distinguished Flying Cross to Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joseph Rosamond, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Kipp Goding, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brady Hlebain, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Irvin Hernandez, Warrant Officer 1 Ge Xiong, Sergeant George Esquivel Jr., and Sergeant Cameron Powell of the California Army National Guard for distinguished acts of heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight on Sept. 5, 2020.

“The brave actions and superior airmanship of these soldiers resulted in the successful rescue of 242 adults and children from the rapidly developing Creek Fire in Central California.  Their actions are in keeping with the highest military traditions of selfless service, honor, and personal — personal courage, and reflects a great credit upon themselves, the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade, the California Army National Guard, and the United States Army.”

Rosamond said, “Trump seemed very genuine and was personable with us. He seems to truly care about us and wanted to give us these awards.”

 

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