MONTPELIER — A Navy captain with Montpelier roots was recently honored for his accomplishments heading a Naval Air Station in Louisiana, including sheltering about 90 nursing home residents during Hurricane Isaac last year.
Jack Hill was recognized in a ceremony Nov. 15 at the Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse, La. He left the station to take a position as deputy commander of the Naval Air Force Reserve in Coronado, Calif.
Hill was born and raised in the Capital City. He graduated from Montpelier High School in 1984 and looked to the military as a way to help pay for college. He said his father served for a couple years in the Army, and his uncle served in the Air Force, but other than that, he did not have any strong military ties.
Hill, a three-sport athlete in high school, said being athletic helped land him a Navy ROTC scholarship so that he could attend Northeastern University in Boston.
It was during one of the ROTC training exercises that Hill started to see military life as a possible career choice.
He said during one summer, ROTC participants took part in a program that would spend a week each with the Marine Corps., a submarine, a surface ship and an aviation squadron. Hill’s attitude changed when he went on a simulated bombing run.
“To be totally honest with you, I got sick. I remember getting out of the airplane and a guy was like, ‘I guess you’ll never want to do that again.’ I said, ‘Wrong. That was the coolest thing I’ve ever done,’” Hill said.
Hill grew up riding motorcycles and snowmobiles in Vermont, so he was no stranger to riding different types of vehicles. He also attributes some of his comfort with machines to his father.
“My dad was kind of a maintenance type. The type of guy who could fix anything. I don’t remember my dad taking the car to the shop because he always fixed it,” he said.
Hill went on to fly as a P-3C Orion patrol airplane pilot and was a commanding officer of a C-40 squadron in California. He then worked for an admiral for a couple years before taking the post as commanding officer of the air base in Louisiana in February 2012.
Hill compared working as a commanding officer of an air base to being the mayor of a small city.
“It’s kind of funny because in this case the small city is about the size of my hometown,” Hill said, adding he oversaw the day-to-day operation of a base that housed and employed around 10,000 people.
While daunting, Hill said he had a good role model for managing something so large. Hill’s mother is Beverlee Hill, the recently retired assistant manager in Montpelier’s City Hall. But even Beverlee Hill never had to manage in a hurricane alley.
Hill said hurricane preparation is a big deal in Louisiana and recalls having his first meeting about it in the spring. In August, Hurricane Isaac hit.
“The problem with Isaac was it didn’t move very fast,” Hill said. “So we had winds in excess of tropical storm force, which is 35 mph, for 56 hours. It just never stopped raining and the wind never stopped blowing. If there was a crack or a crease or a crevace, water found its way into it.”
Hill said after Hurricane Katrina, which devestated Louisiana in 2005, the Army Corps of Engineers went in and repaired and strengthened the levee system. The naval base was tucked safely behind the levees, but an elder home was not.
Hill said he received a call during the storm that around 90 elder home residents and their 40 staff and caretakers were trapped in buses inside the levee system as they fled the hurricane. Winds were too strong to try and cross a bridge to get to their emergency shelter, and they had no where else to go.
He said there are some things the military legally can’t do such as use the security force to direct traffic outside the gates or use the base’s two fire departments outside the walls of the facility unless there is a memorandum of understanding in place. Hill did have emergency powers, however, that let him go outside the normal rules if there was a life-threatening emergency. He used that power to allow the elder care residents to seek shelter at the base for 24 hours.
“What I was thinking was if that was my grandmother, I’d want someone to take care of her,” he said.
At the time, the decision was scrutinized by military brass, as some thought the situation was not life-threatening and the residents probably would have survived if left to their own devices. Hill said eventually the higher-ups decided he made the right call.
Hill may have actually saved lives.
“That particular nursing home has moved its residents to other locations during storms in the past because it is outside the levees and typically some of the residents don’t make it through the transport because of the stress of the traumatic event,” he said. “In this case, they all made it.”
Some of Hill’s decision-making and values he can trace back to growing up in Vermont.
“Growing up in Montpelier, it was about community,” Hill said. “You knew when people were in a tough spot. Whether it was through the church, or just community events, I remember growing up with this real sense of being a part of a big family in the community itself. I think that served me well in the Navy.”
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