Staff Sgt. Colin King and a team of airmen were racing against the clock to the hospital to deliver two critical patients in the back of their F-350 pickup truck: a woman in labor and a man on life support with critical medical gear swiftly running out of power.
The problem was that the Guardsmen of the 107th Attack Wing were navigating Buffalo, New York, where a historic storm dropped snow as high as four feet, leaving streets littered with abandoned vehicles.
“We were driving through parking lots, over sidewalks; there were a ton of stranded cars to get around. It looked like the apocalypse,” King told Military.com in an interview about a convoy of two pickup trucks the airmen were using. “Our trucks got stuck about six times, and we had to dig out with our hands and shovels.”
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More than 500 New York Guardsmen are deployed as Buffalo has been devastated by a crippling winter storm, with at least 28 people dead.
Buffalo was walloped by at least 49 inches of snowfall over Christmas weekend, and local officials are scrambling to dig out the city and its surrounding suburbs, with many neighborhoods still cut off from emergency services. The Buffalo Niagara International Airport is closed until at least Wednesday, adding to nationwide flight cancellations and delays.
Troops have been conducting health and wellness checks alongside first responders, a Guard spokesperson told Military.com. Those checks amount to going door-to-door in hard-hit areas, some of them impossible to navigate by vehicle. In some cases, Guardsmen are driving doctors and nurses to work. Military Police will also be helping local authorities and state troopers enforce a driving ban in Erie County, which includes Buffalo. Guardsmen, however, are not deputized, according to a Guard spokesperson, and therefore will only be assisting officers and not enforcing local laws themselves.
King described the harrowing experience of trying to help the two patients who had been loaded into the pickup truck.
The woman in labor had to be moved from Kenmore Mercy Hospital, which was short on staff and equipment, limiting the facility’s ability to handle any complications during delivery. The other patient, a man with a blood-pumping medical device and no means to properly charge his equipment at the hospital, needed to go home for extra batteries. He was also suffering from frostbite.
Both patients were loaded into an F-350. The woman had priority, as doctors believed the man’s medical device had at least 10 hours of life left. But the six-mile trip to the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital took at least an hour. The woman and husband were eventually dropped off without incident, but the airmen had a medical kit in case she needed to deliver in the back of the truck.
But then the man’s medical device started beeping, indicating it had about 30 minutes of life left. He couldn’t survive without it.
“We’re probably only three miles away from his house, but there was a four-foot snowdrift everywhere,” King said.
The truck got stuck, despite efforts to dig it out, but New York state officials sent plows that managed to get the man out to a hospital. He survived. But the storm has proven deadly for others; in at least one case, airmen responded to a fatality in which someone may have frozen in their car. Guardsmen worked with local authorities to properly remove the body, according to King.
With plummeting temperatures and extreme windchill, the storm has claimed dozens of lives as thousands of residents struggle to find warm shelter despite widespread power outages. Temperatures are forecast to stay below freezing until Wednesday. In one case, airmen with the 107th Attack Wing rescued a man and his dog stuck in high snow drifts on Christmas Eve. Many people were trapped in their cars after getting stuck and running out of gas.
Pfc. Matthew Waldman, who is assigned to the 105th Military Police Company, was late reporting to his unit on Christmas after stopping at a woman’s house to help her deliver a baby.
Soldiers with the 827th Engineer Company are assisting with snow removal efforts in areas that need access to emergency vehicles, such as a senior living center in Cheektowaga, a suburb of Buffalo.
On Monday, President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency in New York, a move that opens up federal resources and money for relief efforts. It is also part of a series of steps that can be taken to put Guardsmen on so-called Title 32 orders, which means the troops would be federally activated and could earn some benefits — such as retirement points — and get disability assistance and compensation if injured on duty while still under the control of the governor.
However, troops are still on state active duty, or SAD, orders. Under those orders, Guardsmen are effectively state contractors and not formally affiliated with the military on paper. They generally cannot file disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs or accrue key benefits such as the GI Bill or VA home loans. Guardsmen also generally do not have access to free health care while on state missions, something Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, is lobbying to fix. It’s unclear whether Guardsmen will be placed on federal orders in the coming days. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
On the other hand, New York pays all soldiers a baseline of E-5 pay, meaning privates are paid a sergeant’s wage on state orders, a policy a few states have due to junior enlisted pay being roughly equivalent to minimum wage. Guardsmen on state orders can also potentially unionize, as soldiers in Texas did.
It is unclear how long the New York Guard’s mission will last. Most service members were activated before Christmas and missed the holiday with their families.
“I think what was meaningful is these roads were a ghost town, but people saw our military members out getting through it. We were the only ones in the street,” 1st Lt. Richard Burns, who is assigned to the 107th Attack Wing, told Military.com. “People were cheering us on.”
— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.
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