West Virginia National Guard Sgt. Zachary Mills received the Division of Natural Resources Meritorious Service Medal Sept. 22, 2017, for his actions during the historic West Virginia floods in June, 2016, when he and his partner, DNR Sgt. Chris Lester, were credited in saving the lives of over fourteen individuals.
Mills, a cannon crewmember with 1st Battalion, 201st Field Artillery Regiment, in Lewisburg, is a law enforcement officer for the DNR as well as a member of their swift water rescue team as an assistant boat operator.
On June 23, 2016, Mills and Lester were called to White Sulphur Springs as hundreds of people were stranded in their homes in one of the worst-hit areas in the state.
DNR Lt. Dennis K. Feazell recounted the actions of Mills and Lester during the award ceremony.
They quickly got to work using their training as swift water rescue responders and knowledge of rope rescue techniques to begin to pull stranded citizens out of their homes. They began on Big Draft Road where they used kayaks and ropes to rescue four flooded citizens out of their home. The citizens were evacuated to an awaiting emergency medical unit on dry land where they were treated for hypothermia. Moving further into White Sulphur Springs, Sgt. Lester and Officer Mills rescued four more individuals that had sought refuge in the second story of their house as the water flooded around them on Oak Street.
He explained that cries for help drew the two officer’s attention to a burning house across the creek from where they were. They could see a woman clinging to a tree beside her burning home, which had been set ablaze by a propane explosion. The distance between the officers and the victim was 180 yards of rushing water, debris and burning structures and darkness. Putting themselves at great risk, the officers made several attempts to get to the woman with the snout rig. Each time they were close to within 50 yards of the victim, strong currents and large floating or submerged debris knocked their boat off course. Realizing that they were not going to be able to reach the victim with the snout rig, they came up with another plan. The men loaded up into their patrol vehicles where they found their way around the flooded area.
Using their trucks, they were able to get within 75 yards of the victim where they had to traverse steep, mountainous terrain under extreme darkness to get to the water’s edge. With help from a local river guide named Robert Seay, the men got into a three-man pyramid formation and began to wade in chest deep water, fighting strong currents to make their way up stream to the victim.
As they neared the burning house they could hear explosions from ammunition and aerosol canisters as it cooked off in the fire. When they got to the victim they found her clinging to the top of the tree, her clothes were melted off and she had third degree burns all over her body. Rescuing the woman was made more difficult by the fact that the tree that the woman was clinging to was too hot to touch because of the burning house in close proximity. The men splashed water on the tree to cool it enough so that they could get to the victim as the fire from the house still raged beside them. Pulling the woman off of the tree and into their arms they begin to make their way to safety.
As they carefully moved downstream, they found that their evacuation route had become blocked by a car which had caught fire from the heat of the burning house. Officer Mills extinguished the fire enough for them to get through by splashing it with the flooded water that surrounded them. The men were able to brave the swift currents and get the woman to the water’s edge.
There, they had another obstacle to overcome – getting the woman up the steep, slippery bank. Fighting exhaustion and hypothermic symptoms, the men were able to climb 50 feet in elevation up the steep grade to awaiting emergency medical units.
“The woman was rushed to the hospital and our officers went back to work,” said Feazell. “They then responded to Mill Hill road where they used wading and rope rescue techniques to rescue five more stranded citizens out of the flood ravaged zone.”
Feazell went on to explain that Mills’ and Lester’s preparedness, dedication to the community, work ethic, heroism and cool, under pressure quick thinking was the deciding factor in saving the lives of over fourteen individuals that night in White Sulphur Springs.
“It’s kind of cliché, but I was just doing my job,” Mills said. “I signed up for the National Guard and I signed up for the Division of Natural Resources and the swift water rescue team to help people in that time of need. We definitely didn’t expect what we did see, but you just have to deal with it. There was no preparing for what we saw and what we had to endure.”
“It was one of those things where you have to make a decision and you have to do it,” he said. “There’s no second guessing yourself.”
“There’s a reason the man got this award today,” said First Sgt. William Wade, 1/201st FA. “He’s a quality individual. By having professionals such as Sgt. Mills [in our unit], it increases our proficiency tenfold in the Guard. He brings that level of knowledge from here [his job at the DNR] over to us to where we can spread out the knowledge.”
Mills has been in the WVNG for 12 years, serving with the same unit for one weekend a month and two weeks a year, and through two deployments to Iraq and Kuwait.
“These guys showing up means a lot to me,” said Mills. “They’re family.”
Mills said he has learned a lot from the National Guard and the training he’s
received, such as first aid and combat lifesaver, transition easily into his civilian job.