CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (NNS) -- When Hurricane Michael hit Florida’s Gulf Coast Oct. 10, Gary Churchwell, a division head at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Panama City, Florida, and his family evacuated to Mobile, Alabama, to wait out the storm. When it was safe to return, they came home to fallen trees, downed power lines, their roof and ceilings collapsed, and their family home devastated.
Beginning the cleanup process seemed a monumental task; heavy furniture had to be moved, soaking wet carpet had to be ripped out, and all of that in 90 degree weather with limited, if any, emergency services available.
“We were determined to get the work done,” said Churchwell. “I started feeling dizzy and had to take a break. We noticed a few young people working with our neighbors next door, clearing trees in their driveway with a chainsaw. When they were finished, they showed up at my house and said, ‘What can we do?’”
This group of young people consisted of two flight students from Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Ensign Nicholas Sholty, Ensign Andrew Kittel, and their friend, Carolyn Gadboys. Sholty, a Pensacola native, is no stranger to hurricane destruction. He lost his own home in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan made landfall on the Florida coast, just a few days after moving in.
“We had 8 feet of water in our house, and we spent weeks walking from Pensacola pier down to our house and back a few times a day, salvaging what we could and trying to empty out everything that was ruined,” explained Sholty. “We only had the clothes that we evacuated with.”
After buying a house in Gulf Breeze, Florida, and setting up a new home mere months later, Hurricane Dennis hit.
“Once again, we returned to a totaled house,” said Sholty. “I can relate to all the residents affected by Hurricane Michael.”
Sholty, assigned to Training Air Wing Five, contacted his chief safety officer who gave the go-ahead to collect and distribute supplies.
“I just couldn't sit back and not help when they were the ones that came here and gave me warm meals, clothes, and helped my family out when we needed help,” Sholty said. “I had to return the favor.”
He sprang into action, sending texts and emails, and making phone calls and Facebook posts asking for supplies and support. Training Air Wing Five helped publicize his efforts and as word got out across the command donations began to flow in. Gadboys’ coworkers made generous donations as well, totaling almost $2,000. The team collected enough supplies for two truckloads full of water, Gatorade, beer, new socks, new underwear, new shirts, baby wipes, gasoline, toiletries, protein bars, trash bags, assorted tools, chainsaws, gloves, cleaning supplies, 200 hamburgers and cheeseburgers, chips, 100 ham and cheese sandwiches, protein drinks, ice, batteries, backpacks, and other essentials. Kittel, from New Richmond, Wisconsin, responded to the request for help in physical relief efforts.
“I felt a calling to go there and try to make a difference in people’s lives and show them that people are thinking of them and want to help,” Kittel said.
With that, the group drove toward the destruction and into Churchwell’s life. They removed a significant amount of furniture from his home and cleared numerous driveways and paths so residents could come and go safely.
“They were making sure we were all right, making sure we were hydrated,” Churchwell said. “We sat down at the end of it all and had a cold beer. They worked for hours and gave me a break. We need pilots with character, and these guys have got it.”
Churchwell’s sincere gratitude for their help struck a chord with Kittel.
“He and his wife's appreciation for our time and effort is something I'll never forget,” Kittel said. “They were so grateful that someone was there to help them when they needed it. The feeling of knowing you made a difference in someone’s life with simple effort and kindness is truly a blessing.”
Sholty, Kittel, and Gadboys covered a lot of ground. Working 14-16 hour days, they supported five other families, stopped to cut fallen trees off of roadways, put tarps over remaining roofs, and on their breaks, continued to distribute supplies to approximately 100 people.
“I think the thing that made the biggest impact on me was seeing everybody come together to help one another,” Sholty said. “In a world where there is so much negativity, there were people from all over the country there to lend a hand to complete strangers. We didn't know any of the people we helped, yet every one of them was like family when we left. We had grown men crying on our shoulders as they went through what was left of their belongings, and that really brought everybody closer together.”
Coming from his own loss, Sholty said he sees hope and perseverance through dark times.
“I saw destruction unlike anything I have ever seen,” he said. “I think that overall the most amazing thing though was that even though these people, the Churchwell's included, have lost everything, they are all so strong willed that they will push through this and come out stronger than before.”
While Churchwell may have been only one of the hundreds of people who these flight students supported that day, he was deeply touched by their care and attention. They swept in at a time of deep personal loss, chaos, and confusion. He said proudly, “My wife refers to them as ‘the angels’.”
Kittel and Sholty are both students at Training Air Wing Five aboard Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Florida. Kittel started his primary flight training in July and while he hopes for Maritime Patrol, he said would love the challenge of flying jets. Sholty’s training began with Training Squadron Three in March and he plans to select the strike pipeline in the coming months.
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