Fort Walton Beach veteran shares helicopter rescue experiences in 'The Hurricane Within'

Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — Ashlee Leppert remembers her first day in Houston on the scene of Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.

How could she forget?

It was that day among the ones that followed that earned her a standing ovation at the State of the Union address in 2018. Leppert was there serving as a flight mechanic aboard U.S. Coast Guard MH-65D helicopters.

Harvey was a devastating Category 4 hurricane that made landfall in Texas and Louisiana, causing catastrophic flooding and killing more than 100 people.

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They were one of the first crews there. Visibility was low.

A pregnant woman near delivery was trapped inside of her apartment complex in Houston. She was in bad shape, going in and out of consciousness, Leppert said.

Leppert and her team did reconnaissance of the area to see where they could hover and then a risk-vs.-gain analysis, she said. They landed in a flooded apartment complex.

Ashlee Leppert served as a flight mechanic aboard Coast Guard MH-65D helicopters during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Because of it, the woman and her baby are alive today.

“It was a really intense mission — and that was the very first day getting on scene,” Leppert said. “It only rapidly got crazier as the days went on. And I think that's the best case scenario. I think it’s what all military, and more specifically our Coast Guard aviators, aim to do. We go out there and risk our lives, but if it's going to benefit another life and save people, it's kind of a no-brainer for us. This is what we love to do and train for.”

Collectively, their crews rescued more than 75 people in 72 hours, Leppert said.

Saving lives during Hurricane Harvey is only a glimpse of the experiences she wrote about in her first book, “The Hurricane Within.” She self-published on Amazon in 2019 and is now writing her second book.

Leppert has lived a lot of life. That’s what inspired her to write a novel.

Fort Walton Beach resident Ashlee Leppert served in the U.S. Coast Guard for 14 years as a flight mechanic.

She served as a helicopter mechanic and on the flight crew for the Coast Guard for 14 years. She medically retired in 2019 and now lives in Fort Walton Beach.

While she was only 34 when she was retired, Leppert wanted to spread positivity from her life experiences. In the memoir, she not only talks in detail about helicopter rescues, but also her own battles with post-traumatic stress disorder and sexual assault.

“I decided that looking back throughout my life, I had experienced a lot, so I talk about a lot and I come full circle, always showing the positivity and the blessings on the other side of the storm,” Leppert said. “So currently, my new passion project is really just to spread that inspiration and spread that positivity to people who may feel a little bit down with their own life circumstances. And I hope that when they get an opportunity to hear my stories, and to read my story, they can feel a little bit lighter in the heavy days that they're going through.”

Leppert hopes her book also gives the general public a better idea of what the Coast Guard does, especially those in aviation.

“They think of the people out on boats that come and pull you over when you've been out drinking or whatever,” Leppert said. “The aviation community is rather small. So to be able to share my story and actually really depict firsthand what it's like to be a Coast Guard aviator, it was really cool for me, because if anything, people can just take away from my storytelling a little bit more about what we do day to day.”

Coast Guard veteran Ashlee Leppert shares her life experiences in her memoir "The Hurricane Within."

Many factors led Leppert to the Coast Guard. And she was made for it.

One of her best friends died in a boating accident right after they graduated from high school. And she was on the swim team for about five years through junior high and high school. She loved the water.

“I had a friend who joined the Coast Guard, and he was in aviation, and he would talk all the time about how amazing it was saving lives, and it just really spoke to me,” Leppert said. “I joined shortly thereafter in 2005. And I really was only going to do four years of service, but I ended up loving it so much that I did 14.”

Leppert would’ve done 20 if she hadn’t medically retired, she said.

Her mother was apprehensive when she first joined.

“But she also knew how I was and I always had felt that it was my purpose on this Earth to go out and serve this country and to be an asset to people that are in trouble,” Leppert said. “And so, of course, my mom was over the moon proud. My father, he passed away in 2010. But I know he was with me every step of the way and was very proud of me looking down on me from above.”

Her job title was an avionics electrical technician, so much of her time was spent troubleshooting avionics equipment, she said. Once or twice a week, she was on duty for the flight crews, meaning she got the calls for rescues if there was a missing boater or someone was drowning.

“That's when the crew launches two pilots, myself as a flight mechanic and a rescue swimmer. We all head out in the helicopter and do search and rescue and recovery hopefully,” Leppert said. “So it's kind of like a two-part job.”

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Leppert got the call that they were going to Houston for Hurricane Harvey at 3 a.m., she said.

“I think we were all very acutely aware just exactly how bad the hurricane is, or was at the time,” Leppert said. “Typically, in most cases with hurricanes, they build and once they hit a landmass, they sort of dissipate and kind of go away. Well, Hurricane Harvey was vastly different because once it hit the land, it never really stopped. It just sat there and didn't really decrease and it dumped rain and nobody really was prepared for all that.

“But we just did what we trained to do best.”

Shortly after, while Leppert was decompressing from her rescue work in Texas, she got a call from a blocked number. She didn’t answer.

Three calls later, she finally picked up.

“I kind of answered annoyingly, thinking it was like a telemarketer or something,” Leppert said. “And then they proceeded to say, ‘This is so and so from the White House. We're calling on behalf of the president and the first lady to invite you as an honored guest to the State of Union.' ”

Coast Guard veteran Ashlee Leppert was a distinguished guest of President Trump for his State of the Union address in 2018.

Leppert still beams thinking of the experience. She and her colleagues were given a tour of the Capitol building and the White House, had lunch and got to meet Vice President Mike Pence and second lady Karen Pence.

“I didn't really know at the time, but President Trump had talked about me within the first five minutes of his speech, and I got a standing ovation,” Leppert said. “I was not expecting that. And in that moment, I'll never forget, I just felt this overwhelming sense of pride. And not only for the rescues that myself and my crews did, but just pride for the Coast Guard and pride for the military in general, that we're out here doing so many amazing things that sometimes can be overlooked. So it was just a complete honor.”

Leppert’s book features many vulnerable moments. She wrote about her father’s death, a sexual assault she experienced before joining the military, medical issues and post-traumatic stress disorder from her hurricane rescues.

Leppert didn't realize at the time that she was going through what is considered PTSD, she said.

“It was very important for me to share my story, because a lot of times, regardless of the situation — you don't have to be flying in the middle of a hurricane to experience PTSD afterwards,” Leppert said. “Any type of trauma that somebody experiences can lead to PTSD, so it was important for me to break that stigma. You don't have to be over in Afghanistan dodging bullets to come home with PTSD. There’s a lot of scenarios that we encounter in life that can induce these things.”

Fort Walton Beach resident Ashlee Leppert received The Air Medal for meritorious achievement in aerial flight because of her rescue work during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Leppert said she had a lot of help from her friends writing "The Hurricane Within." Truthfully, she said she doesn’t love writing, but it was worth it.

“Whether it be, ‘I never knew that I had PTSD,’ or ‘Thank you for sharing your story about your sexual assault because I had something similar.’ It's just been such positive feedback that I've gotten this far. Now I'm venturing out into inspirational speaking events and talking to people on a little bit of a larger scale. It's been very fulfilling.”