Amy Donaldson: Olympics: Athlete-soldiers find a way to help

Published: Sunday, Nov. 4 2012 6:34 p.m. MST

USA's Nick Cunningham pilots with brakeman Dallas Robinson as they compete in the second heat in the men's two-man bobsled world championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012.

Mike Groll, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — If Sgts. Nick Cunningham, Dallas Robinson and Joe Mortensen weren't talented athletes, they'd have been with their Army National Guard units when they were deployed to help storm victims after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the northeast.

Training for the season's first World Cups, they had the perfect excuse to stay away from the hazards and heartbreak.

Instead, the three men got special permission from the World Class Athlete Program, which allows them to train to be Olympians in bobsled and luge while serving in the National Guard, to join their units in the New York area for a couple of days.

Cunningham, who drives USA bobsled II, and Mortensen, who is a luge racer, serve together in the New York National Guard 1156 engineering company, while Robinson, who is a push athlete for the U.S. bobsled team, is attached to a unit from Kentucky.

Mortensen said that while they were training in Lake Placid, they were also keeping in contact with members of their units.

When 12 states deployed nearly 12,000 National Guard members, the men sought to figure out a way to be part of that effort.

"Sgt. Cunningham was keeping in contact with our commander," said Mortensen. "He got a text about 11 a.m. (Tuesday), and I had about a half hour."

The three men called WCAP leaders in Colorado Springs, Colo., and received permission to travel to affected areas in their own vehicle in hopes of rejoining with their units.

“All I wanted to do was get there as soon as possible,” continued Mortensen. “I wanted to show that even as a member of WCAP, I’m a soldier at the same time. I want to give back as much as I can and show that I am available to help at times like this.”

Mortensen ended up helping in one of the storms most dramatic rescue efforts — the evacuation of Bellvue Hospital.

“We helped move patients from the higher levels down to the ambulance so they could be transported to a different hospital,” he said.

The hospital is New York City's oldest and most well-known, and it is located in lower Manhattan, one of the areas without power. The hospital operated on generators for two days until the conditions became too difficult to endure.

Mortensen said it was a moving experience — from what he saw to how he helped.

"It was an eye-opening experience," he said. "I'm glad I was there to assist."

Robinson didn't hesitate when he found out what his teammates had planned.

"Our job this time of year is to be ready for our upcoming season," Robinson wrote in a blog on Cunnigham's website. "However, once I heard Nick and Joe were going to voluntarily drive six hours to the city to help with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, I immediately put on my uniform and hopped in my truck to follow. I caught up with them a couple of hours later at their unit in Kingston. Regardless of our training, we are soldiers first and always eager to jump at any opportunity to serve our country. We are honored to be soldiers, and we know that the small sacrifice we made pales in comparison to the true heroes who are serving overseas protecting our country."

The two men made their way to Queens, and found the devastation so shocking none of them had the words to describe it.

“I don’t even know the word to describe the amount of damage that was done," Mortensen said. "You could see how high the water rose in certain areas. It was astonishing.”

The men said they just did whatever was needed to help people try and pick up the pieces of their lives.

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