September 20, 2013 Updated: September 21, 2013 at 7:59 am
Fort Carson aviation soldiers who spent nearly a week participating in search and rescue missions in waterlogged Northern Colorado officially came home Friday.
From Sept. 14-19, 77 pilots, fuel handlers and maintenance personnel with the post's 2-4 General Support Aviation Brigade used three Chinooks and four Blackhawks to evacuate 1,208 residents and 338 pets from Boulder County.
"We were not driving the mission - you were leading the missing from the middle," Air Force Col. Daniel Miller, of Joint Task Force Centennial, told the brigade's soldiers on Friday as they stood in formation at Fort Carson's Butts Army Airfield during a redeployment ceremony.
The soldiers' mission to Boulder County became a deployment Monday after command of the mission was transferred to U.S. Northern Command, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base.
For their efforts during the mission, two soldiers were presented with the Colorado National Guard State Achievement Ribbon: 1st Sgt. Damien Vaughn and Lt. Col. Tyler Smith, battalion commander.
Soldiers of the 2-4 did an outstanding job rescuing residents, some of whom were picked up by aircraft after soldiers spotted them waving for help or noticed "SOS" scrawled in large letters on their driveways, Smith said.
But not all residents wanted rescuing.
"One said, 'I have a month's worth of supplies,' " said Smith, who logged 30 hours of flight time during the mission. "There are a lot of hearty mountain people there."
Col. Robert Ault, commander of the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, said the mission was one of the most difficult his soldiers will complete on the home front.
"This was probably some of the most demanding flying they'll do here, with the high altitude and tight landing zones," he said. "They managed the risks and did a very, very good job."
Rescuing those in danger was old hat for Staff Sgt. Jose Pantoja, a flight medic who transported citizens, pets and their belongings in a hoist bucket to a Blackhawk hovering above.
Pantoja has previously served as a flight medic in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The work is dangerous, but Pantoja loves it.
"To me, it's exciting," he said. "There's an adrenaline rush and sense of satisfaction in knowing that you're helping."
Pantoja used his enthusiasm and a reassuring smile to comfort Boulder County citizens who were nervous about making the ride up to the Blackhawk.
"Who wouldn't be scared when a big hunk of medal is in the air above you?" he said. "I do my best to make them laugh and smile - especially the kids. Once you get them in the aircraft, give them a thumbs up and buckle them in, they're having the time of their lives."
Some of the most emotional and difficult rescues involved pets, he said.
When a woman wouldn't evacuate unless her pet chickens went with her, Pantoja put them in a trash can, duct-taped it closed so they wouldn't escape and put the trash can in the hoist bucket.
"I think it was the Army's first hoist of chickens," he said with a laugh.
Pantoja, a pet lover himself, understands why some residents refused to evacuate without their pets.
"Pets mean everything to some people, as well as to me," he said. "I would do anything and everything to make sure they get home safe as a family."