President Donald Trump awarded seven California National Guard soldiers the Distinguished Flying Cross on Monday for rescuing 242 campers trapped by the massive Creek Fire in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the afternoon of Sept. 5 and into the early morning hours the next day.
Over the course of 10 hours, two aircrews from the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade made multiple rescue flights through “blinding smoke" and “raging wind” to rescue families trapped at the Mammoth Pool Campground, the president said at the ceremony held Monday at McClellan Airport in Sacramento.
“While they were on the way to the campground, the crew received word from state and local officials and headquarters that it was far too dangerous to continue the mission: ‘Turn back,'” Trump told a small assembly of soldiers, family members and state officials. “But they decided to continue anyway, knowing they might not return. They knew that people were in danger."
The seven soldiers recognized by the president included chief warrant officers Joseph Rosamond, Kipp Goding, Irvin Hernandez, Brady Hlebain, Ge Xiong; and sergeants George Esquivel and Cameron Powell.
Together, the two aircrews flew aboard a CH-47 Chinook and a UH-60 Black Hawk through miles of dense smoke that obstructed their vision as they navigated through the night to campsites.
Many of the families they found were already badly burned and injured by the fires, the president said.
The soldiers loaded the people they found aboard their two helicopters and made the perilous return trip through the smoke and fire multiple times, before once again being told to stop flying for the night.
“Their superior said, ‘You cannot do this. You cannot do it again,’” Trump told the small crowd. “The smoke had become even more overpowering, yet they returned a third time.”
“That’s an incredible story,” Trump added. “And I spoke to some people that really didn’t want you to do it. They didn’t want you to go back on those flights.”
Over the last week, the soldiers have continued to perform rescue flights looking for stranded citizens across California, where 25 major wildfires have scorched more than 3 million acres of land and destroyed 4,200 structures so far, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Twenty-five people have also died since Aug. 15, when California’s fire activity increased, according to the department’s update Tuesday.
Kyle Rempfer was an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.