ORLANDO, Fla. --
Airmen at the 920th Rescue Wing here are mourning the passing and celebrating the life of one they consider a rescue hero. She wasn't a typical hero, but those who knew her respected and admired her resilience, positive energy and ability to light up a room. She was friendly. She was lovable. She was energetic. She was a beagle.
Katrina the beagle came to be known as the 920th Rescue Wing’s unofficial mascot. She passed away June 18 in her Orlando home in the arms of her adoptive dad, Lt. Col. Mike Brasher, 920th Rescue Wing HH-60 Pave hawk helicopter pilot. He and his wife, Melanie, cared for Katrina for 11 years since Brasher rescued her from Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in 2005. She was 16 years old.
After the Category 5 twisted through New Orleans, flooding everything in its path, it left behind the beagle mom who had just given birth to pups, leaving her to fend for herself. Like so many New Orleaners, she was a survivor. Her cage was without a roof, allowing her to swim out with the rising waters making it to dry ground on an overpass that was half underwater.
Brasher and his crew of rescue Airmen first laid eyes on the beagle through the windshield of their rescue helicopter. With the rotor wash blowing her long ears back and her body resisting the strong downwind, they were surprised that instead of running away, she was happily wagging her tail at them.
“The entire crew was just amazed with how this little beagle kept running up to the massive helicopter,” Brasher said.
The friendly beagle greeted the pararescuemen energetically each time they landed to evacuate people from the flooded causeway. They made several trips to save hundreds of lives. At every turn, Katrina would wag her tail and gently nudge at the heels of the passengers as they boarded onto the chopper. She even jumped into the arms of a pararescueman as he assessed and directed survivors.
After getting everyone to safety, the Airmen scooped up the beagle and hatched a plan to ensure their furry helper would be cared for as they moved on to the next rescue endeavor.
The beagle left everyone she wagged at smiling and thinking about her, taking their minds off their own weariness and the horrific devastation.
Eventually, the beagle was delivered to a medic who promised the crew she would ensure Katrina's safety. Later that night as the rescuers were bedding down, they watched the news of what they were living through. The cameras panned flooded streets, tears and more devastation. Then, it panned a group of displaced pets in an animal shelter. There was their furry friend, same collar and heart-shaped spot over her own heart.
While she was safe, Brasher felt bad that she was all alone. He called his wife and told her about the beagle and the bond she forged with him and his crew. His wife simply asked, “Why didn’t you keep her?” With four other dogs, he didn’t realize he’d be cleared to bring home another. Her question set the wheels in motion on a search and rescue mission to find that beagle.
Brasher called the animal shelter, but the beagle was swept away and cast from shelter to shelter with hundreds of other displaced pets, making the search odds seem impossible.
After flying 24/7 for 21 days straight to rescue 1,043 people and an untold number of pets, the operation drew to a close. The Airmen were sent back home to Florida. While they were called heroes, the Airmen considered their beagle friend the real hero. The bond that formed among the chopper crew and the beagle kept them going. That bold wag and those floppy, wind-blown ears touched their hearts.
Brasher kept on his tedious personal journey to find that little beast and give her a home. After a month into the search and many false leads, he finally had some promising news through Petfinder.com. There was a beagle that ended up in a shelter in Arizona. She suffered some health problems, an enlarged heart from heartworm, but she was recovering and was about to be rescued again.
“I remember that first time seeing her again how amazed I was that several miracles came together and she was actually in Orlando," Brasher said. "Even though I knew there was a chance that her owners could be found and we would have to return her, I also knew right then and there that I wanted her to be a permanent part of our family.”
The Brashers met their new family member at the Orlando airport and the rest is her story. Her previous owner eventually surfaced, but they agreed it would be best for the beagle if she stayed in her new home. The couple couldn’t be happier.
Through the years, Katrina made regular visits to Patrick Air Force Base, accomplishing her mission of putting smiles on the faces of everyone she came across. Her tail kept wagging, and she continued spreading joy to the wing until the end.
Although passed, she will not be forgotten. She is survived by a wing of Airmen who agree that heroes can come in all shapes in sizes in the midst of devastating events.
“She may have rescued us by teaching us to keep life simple," Brasher said. "Enjoy it, because life is all about milk bones, apparently. And during these years, we’ve always been amazed at her resilience.”