Kentucky Guardsmen help man find courage after disaster

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

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Kentucky National Guardsmen Pfc. Mary Lewis and Pfc. Kyle Gray, 301st Chemical Company, assist West Liberty, Ky., resident Daniel Leach gather clothing for victims of the tornado. Leach's apartment was destroyed during the tornado but clothing that belonged to his deceased mother was left untouched by the rain, wind and debris. "Maybe they can use it," he said. "Mom would've wanted that." (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Gina Vaile-Nelson, 133rd MPAD, Kentucky National Guard)

WEST LIBERTY, Ky. — In the hallowed shell of what was his West Liberty, Ky., apartment, Daniel Leach took a deep breath and grabbed a plastic garbage bag from Pfc. Mary Lewis.

One by one he took shirts, then pants then skirts off of their hangers – pausing to wipe the tears from his eyes every few moments. The clothing was just the way his mother left them.

“I just never had the heart to do it,” Leach said. “I couldn’t bring myself to come in and clean out her things.”

But four years after his mother’s death, an EF3 tornado forced Leach to do what he thought was impossible.

“It’s amazing. Nothing in her room got touched,” he said.

Every other window in his two-bedroom apartment was blown out. Pictures sucked off the wall; glass, dishes, clothing and papers strewn about.

“I just grabbed my neighbor and her two kids and threw them in my hallway here and got on top of them,” he said.

Debris littered the hallway, bathroom and living room. Once the tornado was over, the door to his mother’s bedroom was still intact. A few scratches. Some mud. But the room was just the way it was before the storm.

“She was my angel,” he said. “She was here, she was with me. It’s her way of saying I’m going to be alright.”

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West Liberty, Ky., resident Daniel Leach points to where he viewed an F3 tornado ravaging his hometown before it slammed into his apartment building. Leach went through what was left of his apartment and belongings March 7, five days after the storm ripped through his Eastern Kentucky community March 2, killing five residents. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Gina Vaile-Nelson, 133rd MPAD, Kentucky National Guard)

As other residents of West Liberty began cleaning up and salvaging what they could, Leach had something else in mind.

“She would’ve wanted it this way,” he said as he handed her clothing to a team of Kentucky Guardsmen.

“I’ve never been one to give too much to charity,” he said. “But now I’m in need. So I feel like I have to.”

For Leach, the team of Lewis and Pfc. Kyle Gray, both Soldiers assigned to the 301st Chemical Company based in Morehead, were a blessing.

“I’m very blessed these guys showed up and asked me if I needed help,” he said. “They are a Godsend.”

But the Guardsmen said it’s just part of their mission to provide relief – whether in the form of security patrol, physical labor or as a shoulder to lean on.

“It was heartbreaking,” Lewis said.

“He informed me that he was going to donate some clothes. And as we were talking I learned they were from his mother who had passed away,” she said.

“All I could do was just relate to him,” Lewis said. “I lost my grandmother and to this day haven’t touched her house. He has a lot more courage than I do.”

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Maj. Jerry Shacklett, a Kentucky National Guard chaplain, talks with Daniel Leach, a West Liberty, Ky., resident, March 7 during clean-up operations following the deadly tornado that ripped through the Eastern Kentucky community March 2. "Without God's grace we wouldn't have lived through it," Leach said. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Gina Vaile-Nelson, 133rd MPAD, Kentucky National Guard)

For nearly 15 minutes, Lewis and Gray stood by Leach and talked him through the emotional task.

“For me, it was the best day since I’ve been here,” she said. “I like being out there doing something and helping people. I want to make people happy.”

For Leach, the helping hand and shoulder to lean on was exactly what he needed and couldn’t have come at a better time.

“I’m so appreciative for the Guard,” he said. “They’ve been out here making sure only people who need to be here get in so we could get the electricity back on, and helped us get stuff out of here.

“And they helped me with something that’s never easy,” he said. “I’m so fortunate. I’m so blessed. It’s sad that my home is gone, but I’m thankful for these organizations out here helping us salvage what we can.”

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