Above and Beyond: Veteran Volunteers Go From Sawyers to First Responders
They weren’t even supposed to be there. Not as a team and not as individuals. Yet somehow the universe conspired to put four veterans—each from a different branch, each from a different part of North America—in front of a home with a downed tree in Orange, TX, in late October and then on top of that same home’s roof a few hours later.
By the end of that day, the veterans and Greyshirts teamwork would also have saved a life.
Four Branches, One Tight Team
Brittany Minor, a defense contractor who works out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, WA, hadn’t been planning to be on vacation or to deploy again with Team Rubicon, yet that’s what happened in late October. Stepping up for her deployment, she hoped to go to Lake Charles, LA, in response to Hurricane Laura. She ended up doing Laura response in Orange, instead. There command and general staff tried to put her in charge of logistics, and then planning but Minor, a Navy Reservist, was having none of it. As a sawyer 1, she wanted to get time cutting. And cut time she got when she was placed on a saw team with Clay Hunt Fellow and U.S. Air Force veteran Jessica Gutierrez, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Jeff Morrow, and Canadian Army veteran and retired police officer Brian Kenny.
Coming from all four branches of service and from all across North America, the sawyer team was incredibly diverse. It was, as Morrow explains, two older guys and two younger gals. “Brittany’s kind of a tough shell; Jessica’s kind of a wild child, per se. And Brian is like a straight-laced cop, on the surface at least, until he opens up.” Yet, they gelled. Strike Team Alpha grew tight quickly. They became a well-oiled saw team machine.
For a Hurricane Survivor, Sawyers Turn Tarpers
It was early in the afternoon on a Monday late in October when Strike Team Alpha finished cutting down a fallen tree in a yard in Orange. The homeowner, Diane, and her son Shon had chatted with the team several times during the course of the work, and as the four Greyshirts readied to leave, she thanked them for everything they had done. Before they left, Kenny asked if there was anything else she needed, and Diane mentioned her roof. It had been tarped after Category 4 Hurricane Laura, which had roared through with 100-plus mph winds tearing off shingles as it went. That tarp hadn’t really withstood Hurricane Delta, however, which arrived in the area a mere six weeks later. The roof might have been covered in blue, but when it rained outside, it also rained in Diane’s bathroom and living room. Alpha Team knew that Hurricane Zeta could be headed there in just a few days, so they put a work order in, marked it as urgent, and hoped another team from Team Rubicon would be able to get to the family before the storm arrived. Then, Strike Team Alpha packed their saws and left.
They didn’t get far. Their next sawing assignment was an hour away, but there wouldn’t be time to get to it and get any work done before the end of the day. Their forward operating base, or FOB as it’s known in Team Rubicon, was just minutes away. So, the team made a decision and got permission to change their scope of work for the day. They would become roofers, instead.
“We were supposed to be doing saw work and we had finished that, and because we had clicked with this family, because they were so gracious, we just said we’ve got time let’s do it,” says Kenny who was the strike team’s leader. They knew doing so would go past the typical quitting time, so Kenny found the boss and said, “we’re gonna go into overtime, don’t worry about it, we’ll just take twice the normal salary,” the Canadian jokes.
After stopping at the FOB and adding tarping material and a ladder to the truck, the team headed for Diane’s house. “We weren’t even supposed to be back there. Think about that,” says Gutierrez. “But, we went ahead and we’re like, you know, let’s go knock this out for this woman real quick.” And off they went.
If Strike Team Alpha wasn’t supposed to have been at Diane’s house again that day, they certainly weren’t supposed to have been on their roof, or on the ladder just below the eaves. They definitely were not supposed to have been in her kitchen, which is where they’d soon find themselves.
For her part, Minor wasn’t supposed to be the one team member on the ground, holding the ladder. The Navy Reservist is the first one to say she prefers getting things done to making sure things are getting done. “Anyone that’s ever been on op with me knows I’m either on the roof or on the ladder,” says Minor. “I’m not going to be the one standing on the ground doing nothing. I like to be doing the work.” And yet, there she was standing at the base of a ladder, watching Gutierrez tack tarp into a furring strip, when Diane emerged from her home, calling for help. Then, Minor was the first to go rushing into the home.
Guitterez stayed on the ladder, tacking away, figuring Minor had everything handled. When Minor came racing out yelling “we need the first aid kit,” and “tourniquet, tourniquet,” however, Guitterez was off the ladder in a flash, racing at Minor’s heels toward the Team Rubicon truck.
At Team Rubicon, every sawyer carries, as part of their saw kit, not only a chainsaw, gloves, and STIHL mark chaps and helmet, but also a blood stop kit which includes gauze and bandages as well as two tourniquets—a stretch, wrap, and tuck tourniquet (SWAT-T) and a tactical medical SOF tourniquet that ratchets for compression. As military veterans, each member of the strike team also knew how to use them. It was those first aid kits the Greyshirts were after.
From his perch on the roof, Brian Kenny saw the women clambering onto the truck. “That week, I got the biggest truck in our fleet,” says Kenny with a chuckle. “If you’ve seen Jess, she’s about knee-high to a grasshopper; Brittany is not much taller. And there they were, trying to climb up the side of the truck, and I’m thinking ‘what the hell’s going?’ So I yelled out ‘yo, what’s doing?’”
Get down here, the women replied, it’s a medical emergency and we need you.
To Save a Life, Making Do with What’s at Hand
Inside, Shon was standing in the kitchen, bleeding profusely. A dialysis patient, he had a fistula in his arm that had ruptured.
An arteriovenous fistula is a surgically created connection between an artery and a vein. In people who undergo hemodialysis, the connection is created in the arm and allows blood to be removed and returned to the body during dialysis. Because it was a graft between an artery and a vein, both the routes to and from the heart had been damaged. The rate of blood loss was exceptional. Shon was bleeding out quickly.
Before she’d run after the first aid kits, Minor had fashioned a tourniquet out of the only thing at hand: the cord from a house fan. By the time she and Gutierrez returned, they found the kitchen where Shon was standing covered in his blood. Later, Shon would tell Guitterez he remembered little of the day, but did remember imploring someone not to slip as they came into the kitchen. There Shon was, clinging to his own life and worrying about the safety of the people who had come to help him.
The makeshift tourniquet was working, if barely, and the women knew it wouldn’t last. Supporting Shon between them, in a room covered in blood, the women worked as fast as they possibly could. Each of them pulled on the cord, attempting to further tighten it around Shon’s arm. While Minor worked to open the tourniquet, Guitterez got the man—perhaps bodily—into a chair. Already, he had begun going in and out of consciousness.
Tacking the Sail Before the Helicopter Lands
Brian Kenny had descended the ladder and followed the women into the home. Kenny was reserve military in 1985 when he ended up going to Kosovo—and later Afghanistan and Ukraine and more—as a police officer. Recently retired, he’s seen a few things in his life, but never has he seen that much blood. Soon, he was helping the women tighten the electrical cord while Minor opened the tourniquet and Guitterez supported Shon’s weight until she was able to get him into that chair.
Then, Kenny stepped up to keep Diane calm. He sent her away to gather Shon’s medications, then he sent her outside to guide the paramedics into the house when they arrived. The goal was to keep her out of the kitchen, so she wouldn’t have to see what was going on, and to give her the kinds of tasks any survivor—or mother—needs to stay focused in such an emergency. As the team got the tourniquet in place, they watched the bleeding slow. They also watched in terror as Shon slipped in and out of consciousness. Twice they believed they’d lost him. Each of the Greyshirts still cries when they talk about it.
Meanwhile, Jeff Morrow was still on the roof, tarping. He’d seen the women jump on the truck, tear open the saw boxes, and look for the tourniquets. He’d heard Kenny ask the question, and watched him descend the ladder. And then, he figured they had it covered and didn’t need one more cook in the kitchen. Besides, the team had already placed a 20 by 24 foot tarp on the roof—basically a sail, as Morrow explains it—and he wanted to get it tacked down. He stayed there until the paramedics arrived.
For those paramedics, pulling in and seeing that Team Rubicon was on site actually meant something. “We saw your truck out front and we knew he was in good hands because Team Rubicon was there,” the main paramedic told Kenny later.
Even with the paramedics there, Morrow didn’t want to insert himself. The rest of the team had it covered it seemed—though they themselves were also covered in blood—so back to the roof Morrow went, putting down some one-by-one boards to ensure the tarp they had laid would at least hold the night. Plus, Morrow didn’t want their work to blow away in the helicopter rotor wash because, by this time, a medivac had been called.
Not that that would have actually happened it turns out.
“All four of us are veterans, but three of us hadn’t been around an aircraft that close in a while,” says Guitterez. “So, when we were waiting for the chop to come in we’re like, ‘alright we have to get this tarp tied down as much as we can before the rotor wash comes in and blows it all away!’”
Minor, the youngest of the group, had a good laugh at that, then informed the team that it no longer happened that way. When the medivac did arrive, the old-school vets were ‘“tripping out on the helicopter coming in with reverse thrust and not making any type of rotor wash whatsoever,” Guitterez says.
Team Alpha for Life
Few people who experience a ruptured fistula outside of a hospital survive, the blood loss rate is so great. For Shon, having four people who weren’t supposed to have been at his home or on his roof near him at the time of his trauma meant the difference between life and death. The training each of the Greyshirts had over the course of their military careers likely also contributed to his survival. During Minor’s 12 years in the Navy, for example, she has trained in search and rescue and first aid, among other things. “I don’t know, all the experience in training just kind of came into play and we did what we needed to do,” she says.
Shon is home now, recovering. Strike Team Alpha is home now, too, each of them also recovering in their own way. Yet as they see it, they are a unit for life.
“You know, when you go on an operation with Team Rubicon, you meet a lot of people, and you share in any adversity, and you grow together,” says Kenny. “We had only been together for a very short period of time, but through this adversity, I feel like I have not just gained four Greyshirts, I’ve gained friends with depth and character.”
Guitterez agrees. “The four of us on the team are definitely lifers. We will talk to each other for the rest of our lives,” she says.
It’s a feeling Shon echoed to Guitterez and Minor when they slipped back to Orange to visit him a week after the incident. “You all are my family now,” he told them.
A lot of things that were not supposed to have been have made Alpha Team part of Shon’s life. They weren’t supposed to have been together; they weren’t scheduled to go back to that house. The helicopter shouldn’t have had a place to land: the trees the team had cut down were still clogging the curb. But, as luck would have it, there was an empty field across the street from the house to next to a church, which is where the medivac helicopter was able to land. And, on and around the roof, four veterans with decades of experience had gathered at just the moment Shon needed them most.
“All of these things lined up. And it’s one of those moments where … there aren’t words to describe it,” says Guitterez. “We just sat in each other’s company and basically wept, being grateful for another day.”