From animal rescue to boarding windows, Guardsman humbled to help in own ‘backyard’

Story and photos by Staff Sgt. Gina Vaile-Nelson, 133rd MPAD, Kentucky National Guard

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Kentucky National Guard Sgt. Sean Durbin, 301st Chemical Company, is happy that he was able to rescue Prissy the cat for Eddie and Sandi Lawson March 7. The feline spent five days alone after a tornado ripped part of the roof off of the Lawson's home March 2, and devastated most of the town of West Liberty, Ky. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Gina Vaile-Nelson, 133rd MPAD, Kentucky National Guard)

WEST LIBERTY, Ky. – Homes flattened. Trees ripped from the ground. Vehicles tossed around like Matchbox cars.

Even a combat tour couldn’t prepare Kentucky National Guard Sgt. Sean Durbin for the complete devastation he walked into March 2 in West Liberty, Ky., after a tornado ripped through and destroyed most of the city.

“It hits a lot harder when you see it so close to home, especially in your state,” he said.

“My fellow Soldiers in my unit are from here. This is where it happened. These are the people I’m closest to,” he said. “You want to do everything you can to help them when it’s in your backyard.”

That sense of community pride is what kept Durbin, a chemical operations specialist assigned to the Morehead-based 301st Chemical Company, and his Soldiers motivated during every mission thrown at them. Including the difficult task of recovering bodies.

“He was a World War II Veteran,” Durbin said. “We had a nice flag draping ceremony for him. It was pretty difficult.

“But his family was there and saw everything. They were appreciative of everything so they could have a proper funeral and burial.”

The appreciation and gratitude of the families affected by the storm continued days into the operations as Durbin and his Soldiers patrolled to keep streets cleared for electric company contractors to erect power lines to restore electricity.

“This is by far what the Guard is meant for,” Durbin said. “This situation is the iconic Guard mission. It is what we should be prepared for and what we reacted to immediately.

“Nothing feels better than helping out where you’re from – where you were raised. You rescue or help people and you tell them from Kentucky. You look in their eyes and they know,” he said.

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Kentucky National Guard Sgt. Sean Durbin cuts a piece of plywood for retired Air Force veteran Thomas Coder, a West Liberty, Ky., resident, March 7. Durbin and Pfc. Kyle Gray, both of the Morehead Ky.-based 301st Chemical Company, spent most of the day assisting residents with moving personal items, boarding up homes and passing out supplies following the March 2 tornado that devastated most of the Eastern Kentucky community. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Gina Vaile-Nelson, 133rd MPAD, Kentucky National Guard)

The emergency response, Durbin said, is something that his Soldiers were proud of.

“Everyone is a Soldier first, but in the Guard everyone has another skill,” he said. “We’ve got carpenters and there’s people who are EMS who brought skills and ideas and suggestions out on this mission.

“When Guardsmen bring those skills and stuff to something like this it makes us that much more successful as a unit,” he said.

The success stories were plenty – pulling citizens out of debris, handing out water and food, boarding up windows and rescuing animals.

And for Sandie Lawson, Durbin is nothing short of a hero.

“I wasn’t going to leave until I found her,” Lawson said about her calico cat Prissy.

After frantically searching for five days, Lawson realized there was only one place the cat could be – in an attic crawl space that she couldn’t reach. It was Durbin who was able to coax the feline back to safety.

“I stacked some coolers and pulled myself up there,” he said. “I started yelling ‘Prissy’ and then I saw some big bug-eyes and a leaping cat. She came right to me.”

Durbin’s rescue meant everything to Lawson.

“She’d been missing five days since the tornado. I’m just so glad he was able to find her. I’m so thankful for (Sgt. Durbin),” she said.

For Durbin, each mission allowed him the opportunity to talk with new people, console them and lend a helping hand.

“When we first got here everyone’s heads were down,” he said. “Everyone was trying to take it all in.

“Now, we are all going through the same things,” Durbin said. “Today I saw people smiling – and if you look around there’s not that much to smile at. It’s good to see their spirits lifting.”

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