USS Cowpens
"Return To The Fight"
Cowpens Honors Sailors for Saving Lives in Oklahoma Tornado

SAN DIEGO – Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Vice Adm. Thomas H. Copeman, III, presented two Sailors with the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for their life-saving efforts during a tornado in Okla., in an awards ceremony on Naval Base San Diego, June 12.

Cryptologic Technician (Collection) 3rd Class (SW) Arturo Guerra and Religious Program Specialist 3rd Class (SW) Sean Kelley, stationed aboard the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens (CG 63), played a role in providing assistance to others in the wake of the destructive tornados that devastated Moore, Okla. last month.

The two Sailors were visiting family and friends when the EF-5 tornado struck the city, May 20. An EF-5 is a category reserved for the most devastating of tornadoes, and is based on what little is left rather than the force of what swept through.

After seeking shelter with 13 family members, neighbors, and three dogs; Kelley’s mother received a text message from a neighbor down the street saying she needed shelter. The tornado was already on the ground. Kelley and his father climbed out of the shelter and ran down the street, bringing the woman and her three daughters to safety.

“I grabbed her two babies and my father grabbed the toddler, at which point we ran back to our shelter and miraculously fit everyone inside,” said Kelley.

Huddled around an emergency radio, the group heard reports of the elementary school being destroyed and of children trapped inside. To this, Kelley said, “my father looked at me, and said ‘Let’s go.’”

Kelley, his father, Guerra and others got in a truck and headed to the elementary school.

“The tornado’s path came within less than half a mile of my house, and the rescue chopper reported total destruction of everything in its path,” said Kelley.

The group was among the first responders on site at Plaza Towers Elementary School. Utilizing firefighting equipment and various objects of debris as tools, they attempted to recover children buried among the rubble.

“The elementary school was completely leveled,” said Guerra. “The rubble and destruction that I saw firsthand… I have no words to describe it. The four kids that were there, as I handed them off to the next person in line… I choked up.”

“I have never been in—let alone trained for—chaos of this magnitude,” said Kelley. “You had to do as much as you could while you were there.”

For several hours the two Sailors continued to lend assistance. They aided in rescuing four children and their teacher, three injured personnel, and assisted a dozen other families.

After helping set up a triage for the injured, Guerra and Kelley helped search hundreds of nearby houses for others.

According to Kelley, at their scene alone, they recovered the remains of eight others.

“We did as much for one day as we possibly could,” said Kelley.

Kelley plans to collect donations in order to aid his neighbors who have lost everything in this disaster.

“Their actions are exactly what we expect from anyone wearing the uniform of a United States Sailor,” said Cowpens Executive Officer, Lt. Cmdr. Jeremy Aujero. “Petty officers Guerra and Kelley are living proof of honor, courage and commitment. We here on Cowpens couldn’t be prouder.”

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