South Carolina Army National Guard Sgt. Kevin Westwood said with a laugh that sleeping on a cot after nine days has still not gotten old.
“I enjoy them,” said Westwood, adding that he wraps himself in a sleeping bag on the cot. “It’s actually very comfortable.”
Westwood has been on call since Oct. 4 as the state prepared for Hurricane Matthew and has been rescuing people from flooded homes since. He still doesn’t know when he will get to return to his own abode.
Soldiers have been on a continuous 24-hour shift. He and his colleagues have rescued residents from flooded homes from Conway to Florence to Bucksport. The 25-year-old has been deployed overseas in the past, but this is his first hurricane mission.
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“This was different,” Westwood said. “Here you are working with civilians from your country. You want to make sure they’re safe.”
Lifelong Conway resident Trudy Miller is among those whose safety Westwood has ensured. Miller and her husband, Jerry, went to bed Saturday unfazed by Hurricane Matthew’s rainfall.
She didn’t want to leave her home; after all, the so-called “1,000-year flood” didn’t really affect her home in October 2015. But when she woke up Sunday morning, the water had made its way into her garage, and it kept on rising.
“We weren’t expecting the waters to be this bad,” Miller said. “I was scared the water was going to come in the house.”
Several members from the Army National Guard rescued the Millers, but it was Westwood she praised. Miller, who is now in her golden years, hasn’t really gotten over the harrowing day she almost drowned when she was 11 years old. She’s been terrified of the water since. And on Sunday, her fear was no different.
Miller never told Westwood she was scared or that she couldn’t swim. But Westwood realized she was hesitant to get off the boat.
“He put me on his back, and he carried me because of the kindness of his heart,” Miller said. “I think he’s a hero. He’s a son a momma would be proud of.”
That story doesn’t surprise Westwood’s commander, Col. Richard Wholey, who called Westwood a “natural-born leader.”
“We’re really proud of him,” Wholey said. “We expected nothing less from him. He’s a patriot.”
Westwood has been in the National Guard for five years. Though he is a native of Colombia in South America, Greenville has been his home since he was 14 years old. He is a graduate of Mauldin High School.
He was initially accepted to Clemson University and was set to major in mechanical engineering. Westwood signed up for the National Guard in hopes that it could help him pay for college. But he was deployed shortly after his basic training.
Westwood now is attending Limestone College. He’s majoring in business and computer science. With the guard, he was recently promoted and will soon carry the rank of staff sergeant as part of the guard’s 263rd Air Defense Artillery Brigade in Anderson, after spending some time with the 678th unit in Eastover.
Westwood said he doesn’t consider himself a hero, but added that it has been rewarding to help people. Though it’s sad that people’s homes are being flooded, getting them to safety is paramount, he said.
But there is one thing that has stuck with him the most over the past few days. While he has had the ability to save people from the rising water, pets haven’t been as lucky.
The shelters that evacuees are being taken to don’t allow dogs. Residents of flooded homes are instructed by officials to leave their pets behind and told that animal control will later come to pick them up.
During one rescue, the resident’s dogs followed the boat, swimming behind as the boat sped away, Westwood recalled.
“It’s sad just to see all these dogs left there,” said Westwood, who also has a dog. “You cannot replace a dog. Their lives matter also.”