Ashlee Leppert is a Coast Guard veteran, who was awarded the Air Medal for her role in the heroic efforts during the 2017 Hurricane Harvey rescues where she and her crew saved over 40 people from the flood waters.
She was also an honored guest of President Trump at the 2018 State of the Union Address where she was recognized for her bravery during the Hurricane Harvey rescues. You can view the portion of the address where President Trump talks about her in the video below.
Ashley has also written a book titled The Hurricane Within where she takes us through her rescue efforts during Hurricane Harvey. You can support Ashlee and buy her book using the links below. If you do, be sure to leave a review!
Links & Resources
- The Hurricane Within book on Amazon
- The Hurricane Within book on Audible
- Follow Ashlee on Instagram
Scott DeLuzio: 00:00:00 Thanks for tuning into the Drive On Podcast, where we're focused on giving hope and strength to the entire military community, whether you're a Veteran, Activity Duty, Guard, Reserve, or a family member, this podcast we'll share inspirational stories and resources that are useful to you. I'm your host, Scott DeLuzio. And now let's get on with the show.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:00:22 We have faced challenges we expected and others we could never have imagined. We have shared in the heights of victory and the pains of hardship. We endured floods and fires and storms, but through it all, we have seen the beauty of America's soul in the steel in America spine. Each test has forged new American heroes to remind us who we are and show us what we can be. We heard tales of Americans like Coast Guard, Petty Officer Ashley Leppert. Ashley was a board, one of the first helicopters on the scene in Houston during hurricane Harvey through 18 hours of wind and rain, Ashley braved live power lines and deep water to help save more than 40 lives. That was an excerpt from President Trump's, 2018 State of the Union Address, which my guest today Ashley Leppert was honored with being not only invited to, but also got a nice little name drop thrown in there, by the President, which was pretty awesome. So anyway, welcome to the show, Ashley. I sort of let the President do the hard work, with writing your intro for this episode, but why don't you go ahead and tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:01:34 Awesome. Well, Hey Scott, thanks for having me. That is a pretty epic intro. I'm still greatly humbled every time I hear that. So, well, like you said, my name's Ashleigh Leppert and I was an avionics electrical technician in the United States Coast Guard, for about 14 years only to medically retire. I was stationed in New Orleans back in 2017 when hurricane Harvey had hit over in Houston. I was one of the first crews out. We did some amazing rescues and it was a complete honor to be there at the State of the Union representing such a small service. As you know, we're kind of the redheaded stepchildren of the military a little bit. I digress anyways. That's a little bit of my military background. Currently, as I mentioned, I'm medically retired, so I wrote a book about my life and some things that I overcame, called The Hurricane Within. So now my new passion project is to really just share my story and inspire as many people as I can with some things that I've been able to overcome and just show my resiliency.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:02:50 And that's awesome. Yeah. And I appreciate you coming on the show to share some of your story. Obviously we're not going to give all the spoiler alerts, so all the spoilers away for your book, but enough to get everyone interested in going out and buying that book. I think just from what I've learned about you and your story, I think it's really interesting and, I think it's a great story. So, I do have to ask, what was it like getting invited to the State of the Union? Did they call you first? Did you get a letter, did it go through your chain of command somehow? Like how did all that work for you?
Ashlee Leppert: 00:03:32 So after Hurricane Harvey had happened, as you can probably attest to, we do our job and we don't really expect any accolades or anything from it. We just went out, we did the best job that we could, we were very proud of what we did, but it was just like, okay, back to work, we need helicopters up in the air and things fixed. So I went right back to my normal routine, but one day I was on the hanger deck working and my phone rang. And normally I keep my phone on vibrate on the hangar deck, so I looked at it and it was a number that I didn't know. So I obviously didn't answer it just like a lot of people. And then I got the phone number again and three times this number had called me.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:04:15 And so the third time I answered the phone, like, hello, annoyed thinking it was like a telemarketer. And here it was somebody from the White House who was like, hello, this is so-and-so from the White House. I'm only calling to cordially invite you on behalf of the President, the First Lady to be an honored guest at the State of the Union. And as you can imagine, my first instinct was okay, who's playing a joke on me, what's going on here. and so of course I was completely jaw dropped and so it was that moment that I got invited and, it kind of was a big shock to me. I didn't realize at that moment that the stories of our cruise rescues had gone up the chain of command so high and I guess President Trump at that time was looking for somebody to represent the Coast Guard, for all the rescues that we had done during the hurricane season. So, it just was an overwhelming feeling of joy and obviously being excited and proud of not only my crews, but our entire service.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:05:20 Well, I'm actually glad that you said that your reaction was pretty much like who is this, is it a telemarketer or whatever? I only asked the question because we actually have something in common in that we both were invited to Washington by President Trump. My family is a Gold Star family after my brother was killed in action in Afghanistan. Every year President Trump invited 50 Gold Star families to the White House, every year around Memorial Day. And we got invited to that in 2019. And so the reason I asked you about how you got invited is because when we got that phone call very similar to your situation from the White House, I almost blew it off as if it was some sort of scam. I get so many spam calls on a daily basis that I'm so cynical whenever someone I don't know calls me and that's exactly the same reaction that I had. I was thinking, why would the President even want me to come to Washington? And they're probably going to ask me about my car warranty or something after that.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:06:28 That's so funny. I was just gonna say that because I swear I get that call probably once a week. And I'm like, how did these people even get my number? Right. So, yeah, I was definitely taken aback by them. And, yeah, of course, once he started talking a little bit more and the credentials were explained a bit more, we kind of realized the enormity of the conversation that I was having, but it did take me a minute.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:06:52 Yeah, exactly. So, well, anyway, we're not here to talk about my thing, at the White House or anything like that, we're here to talk about you and your story. And so let's talk about hurricane Harvey a little bit here. That's the event that the President described in the State of the Union Address, where he mentioned to you and, I'm sure there's much more to the story than what he mentioned there. So, could you tell us a little bit about the situation, the hurricane and your role in the rescue efforts?
Ashlee Leppert: 00:07:27 Absolutely. So, kind of looking back, the Coast Guard, we train all the time in aviation, specifically our job is very critical and based on training and training well. So when we do encounter situations like hurricane Harvey, we can go out and we can efficiently succeed in every mission that we do. So how the Coast Guard works is it's kind of like two parts of a job, a Jack of all trades, if you will. So when I'm not doing home duty, I'm an avionics electrical technician. I troubleshoot things and maintain all of our avionics equipment. But when I'm standing duty on call, that means for a 24 hour period, I am along with my two pilots, somewhere on call in case there's anybody out in the water that needs our assistance. So I happened to be on call through the weekend of hurricane Harvey, and about three in the morning, I got a call and of course, me and my crew, we were all very acutely aware of just how big this was.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:08:28 Typically a hurricane hits the coast and kind of dissipates well, hurricane Harvey was very different because it hit the coast and it kind of just sat for many days over Houston, just dumping tons of rain, which obviously was something that nobody had prepared for. So anyways, I had gotten the call that we were heading there, and so I packed my bag and sort of really realized the enormity of the situation and we're heading out there and it was just like, boom, the second we got in the area, it was just like pure chaos. I mean, there were calls coming in about pregnant women stuck in apartment buildings that were about to give birth that needed to be saved. People with attacks like very serious illnesses were the ones that we were focusing on first.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:09:18 For about three days straight, that's kind of all we did was rescue, drop them off, and mind you, we're literally in the middle of a hurricane flying. The visibility is extremely low, we're not familiar with the area of responsibility. So we don't really know where the power lines are or buildings. So, just to back up a little bit too, as my job as a flight mechanic is to keep the public safe, make sure I'm on the radios, talking to headquarters about where our location is, where we're heading to. So your head's on a swivel. So my head was even more on a swivel being that there was such bad weather conditions.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:10:05 Yeah, I cannot imagine that, flying a helicopter through hurricane strength winds, especially, the size of that particular hurricane, which was pretty intense from what I understand. I cannot imagine that that would be an easy job. It was probably very nerve wracking to be flying through that.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:10:24 Yeah. It's so crazy because I look back and to be completely honest with you, I can't speak for everybody else, but for me specifically, I think a split second, I realized, holy crap, this is dangerous as hell. I hope I get home alive, but then that immediately went away and it was just like, boom, your training kicks in and people are in trouble. And your personal needs go out the window and you don't worry about I'm thirsty, I'm hungry. You got to use the restroom. You are constantly basically being fueled by adrenaline. And honestly it wasn't until I got home four days later when I sort of started decompressing and that stress left my body where I realized just kind of the inputs of what we had gone through. And I thank God that I was home safe and sound.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:11:14 Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes the adrenaline just kicks in and gets you through the situation and after you've had a chance to decompress and take a look back at what it is that you just did, you actually realize the enormity of the situation. Where were most of these people, were they sitting on top of their roofs, were you plucking them out of the water? I know the President mentioned that you had helped save over 40 lives, which I'm sure in and of itself is emotionally draining, but there must have been people all over the place. Is that accurate?
Ashlee Leppert: 00:12:00 Yes, sir. So honestly it was, it's really hard to explain, but I think the best term that I had to describe the whole situation was it was very apocalyptic. It was sort of like you see those movies where a huge event happens and it's just pure chaos. I mean, the streets were filled with water. The water was halfway up to almost everybody's roof. There were people on top of roofs, there were people gathered in small patches of dry land if there was any, there were people on their balcony waving towels and t-shirts at us. I mean, even the animals; that was really kind of hard for me to watch too, you would see deceased animals floating in the water, or tied up to a fence, those kinds of thoughts really just stuck with them.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:12:52 Not to digress, but that's really why it was really important for me to write my book and share my stories because I came home and I truly did not know what the term PTSD was. I did not know that the trauma that I witnessed and was a part of out there would in itself affect me and my psychology and my processing of the whole thing. So yeah, it was pure chaos out there and it affected me more than I had thought that it would truthfully. That's why it was really important for me just to kind of touch that topic in my story and share with people that you don't have to be over in Afghanistan, dodging bullets, or whatever the case may be, like trauma happens in so many different types of scenarios, both in the civilian and military world. So, again, I digress, but that was a good time out there.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:13:56 Yeah, and I think that's an important point is that there are lots of traumas that can trigger PTSD in people and it doesn't, like you said, it doesn't necessarily have to be surviving bullets and IEDs and all this other stuff over in a foreign country, it can be something like a traffic accident, or it could be some other trauma that someone experiences and that could cause that kind of response in people and certainly, seeing all these dead animals, I'm sure there were some people as well that didn't make it, and all that type of stuff, it probably does affect people, and it will affect everybody differently in how they process the situation. I have to imagine that going through that is not an easy thing to do. So, what were some of the things that you went through in terms of your coping, after the fact?
Ashlee Leppert: 00:15:13 Honestly I came back and everybody who is a first responder or wants to help people, and that's a generalization, but I guess I'm speaking for myself here, but I came back and I had this hero mentality, like, I'm strong, I got this, you see people on the job, let's move on with life. And then I just realized slowly but surely that I just was not myself. I was very reclusive and I love hanging out with my friends, but I found myself more and more coming up with excuses to avoid friends and just being at home. And honestly for the first three, four days I came home, I didn't even turn my TV on. I just wanted to be in pure silence. it just was such a sensory overload while I was out there that I really just did not know how to handle the aftereffect.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:16:06 I will say my command was amazing. They gave all of us some downtime to be compressed. We had CISM training, which is just sort of after big events, hurricane rescues and whatnot . We talk with people and get in the group and sort of like group counseling, if you will. And there's also counseling just for one person. I handled it the best way that I knew how at the time. And more and more of my coworkers who were with me, some of them also are dealing with the same things that I did. And I didn't think that we really were going to talk about it. And then we ended up talking about it and it made me feel so much better to know like, okay, holy crap, dealing with all this stuff. And so just by talking about it and realizing the normalcy of what we were feeling just really helped the healing process for me.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:17:02 And you're absolutely right. It is a normal thing to go through, to experience these traumas and your reaction to it was completely normal. And being able to talk about it with other people, especially the people who went through it with you, probably helped you feel like you're not alone here. You know, it's not like you're an abnormal person, or you have some strange reaction to the situation that nobody else is having when you start talking to people, you realize, well, geez this was pretty significant. And I'm probably okay to be feeling the way I'm feeling.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:17:46 Yes, yes. And you know, what, if I'm being honest with you, I think for me personally, I felt like, oh my gosh, if I bring this up my guy counterparts at work are going to be like, oh, she's just being an emotional girl or this or that. I know that sounds silly because I know that they are the people that really loved me and respected me at work. I know they would never think that, but like, again, that's that mentality of, oh, I got this. I'm good. I'm good. And then coupled with that, I don't want them to think that I'm being an emotional lady when that wasn't the case, that wasn't the case. And then, the more I realized that that was just a false insecurity I was planting, the easier it was for me to open up to people and talk with my buddies about it.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:18:32 Well, I think this is a good segue into the book. I want to make sure we have some time to talk about the book and what it's all about. I know part of it, we covered it already in terms of the rescue efforts and things like that, but I'm sure, there's more to it than that. So your book again, The Hurricane Within, is the book that we're talking about here. And so why don't you tell us a little bit more about the book and what it's all about?
Ashlee Leppert: 00:19:07 Sure, absolutely. I wrote a story about my life and some things that I overcame both in my personal life and my military experiences. It's very multilayered. I touch on a lot of big topics that everybody could experience loss of a parent, addiction in the family, sexual assault, PTSD, and then I talk a lot about hurricane Harvey. And for me, my faith has always been a foundation for me to have the ability to get through these big stressors and things. And I just found myself thinking I wanted to share my story with others in the hopes that if one person was struggling with one issue in their life, they could relate to something that I said in my story and see how I got through it and make their lives better than for me all the nerves of wanting to share my story and put my personal life on the spotlight, all those worries slowly disappeared because I realized just one person out of the potential hundreds and thousands of people that could read it, just one person was helped or saved, or just spiritually uplifted or whatever the case may be, then it was work well done for me.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:20:24 I kind of talk about a bunch of hot topics in my book. I don't go really into depth with a lot of it, but I'm currently working on a second edition, where I kind of dive a little bit deeper into things that I necessarily wasn't ready to open up within the first book. It's just kind of my passion project to inspire and my faith to share my stories and struggles to be relatable and hopefully help every reader in some significance.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:20:56 Yeah. And that's a great thing about books like this is that you will be able to help people, whether you know them or not. They may come across your book, they'll pick it up, they'll read it, and they'll hopefully relate to something that you wrote about, and that's a big part of why this podcast exists is so that we can talk to people like yourself, and other other Veterans who have experienced traumas or experienced something in their careers that other Veterans could relate to and know that they're not alone. Just like you did with the people that you were with and you talked to them and you found out, Hey, I'm not alone in this. Other people are feeling the same way as me. And so that's, you know, a big, big reason why this podcast exists is to let other people know that you're not alone. There are people out there who are going through similar situations as you. And that's an excellent thing to have in your book is your experiences and, basically letting people know that they're not alone in all of this.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:22:16 Yes. And honestly, Scott, I really, really value and appreciate what you do because that is sort of the problem that I'm encountering now is getting my voice out. And I have the ability to, and the want and the passion to help people. But just getting on these platforms to share that really means a lot. And I know it means a lot to all the people that listen and all the people that you interview. So I just want to extend my thanks to you because if one person hears this and is helped by it, then we're making moves in the world in a positive way. And that's something we both see.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:22:52 Yeah, exactly. That's the goal ultimately is to help people out and books like yours, podcasts like mine, stories that are told to people, public speaking events, where people get up and share their stories whatever the medium is that the story is being shared through. I think it has an inspirational tone, and will encourage and uplift other people to conquer their own demons, if you will.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:23:34 Yes. And what does the world need that I feel like more than ever it needs it now, I just feel like with the heaviness of things in the world, just being able to listen to your podcast or zone out and read my book I feel like this is the way to make change in the world. And it's awesome to be a part of this interview with you today because it's going to impact somebody's life. I'm hoping.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:23:58 Yeah. I hope so, too. So with your book, I'm assuming it's available on Amazon and probably other places online. Could you let people know where they can go to find your book and what they can maybe do to get in touch with you, if they want to find out more about you and your story.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:24:24 Absolutely. I would love to thank you for giving me the opportunity to share that. So yeah, as you mentioned, it is available on Amazon. I also recorded an audio book for those who aren't big into eBooks or paperback books. There's an audio book that's available on audible and iTunes and then also, you can go to my website, it's www.thehurricanewithin.com. And if anybody that is listening would like to invite me or host me for a speaking engagement or a book signing, there's an avenue through my website to do that as well.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:25:02 Oh, that's great. I would highly encourage anybody out there; other podcasters who might be listening, to reach out, and get a little bit more of Ashley's story, shared out to your audience, help her promote this book and get other people reading it. Like you were saying before, that's a great way to reach out to other people and help encourage them and support them.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:25:34 Yes, yes. And thank you again, and I appreciate you allowing me to be here and share a sliver of my story and I would encourage the listeners as well. Please reach out to me either on Facebook or Instagram. And if you want to talk a little bit more in depth, or if you have a personal experience similar to something in my book that you'd like to share with me, I always love connecting with other people. So, I'm also a big proponent of that as well.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:26:04 Awesome. Yeah. And we'll have links to all of your social media and your website and a link to the book, all in the show notes. So anyone who's looking to pick up the book or get in touch with Ashlee, please check out the show notes and you can find all of those links there. Ashlee, it has been an absolute pleasure speaking with you today, and really excited to be able to help share your story, and get it out there to the listeners.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:26:33 And thank you so much, Scott, and you are honoring your brother in a huge way, and I want to give my condolences for that as well. But again, I know he is so proud of you for continuing on his legacy as well.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:26:46 Thank you very much. I really appreciate those kinds of words.
Ashlee Leppert: 00:26:51 You're very, very welcome.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:26:53 Thanks for listening to the Drive On Podcast. If you want to check out more episodes or learn more about the show, you can visit our website DriveOnPodcast.com. We're also on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube at Drive On Podcast.