The Florida Army National Guard on Thursday recognized the contributions of UCF leaders for rescue and relief efforts during Hurricane Irma by presenting the Florida Distinguished Service Medal to President John C. Hitt, Police Chief Richard Beary, associate vice president for Administration and Finance Lee Kernek, and director of Security and Emergency Management Jeff Morgan.

“At the time, we had Hurricane Irma bearing down on Florida and citizens across the state were concerned,” Col. Grant Slayden said. “We had units flying in from Kentucky and others driving from New Jersey, Alabama and Georgia, all converging on Florida, and there was nowhere to put them. We got here and were welcomed with open arms with the full support of Dr. Kernek, Chief Beary and Jeff Morgan under [Dr. Hitt’s] leadership.”

For several days in September, UCF hosted more than 700 members of the 164th Air Defense Artillery Brigade and other units as they worked around Central Florida. Soldiers slept in the Nicholson Field House and UCF Athletics locker rooms, ate meals served by student-athletes and coaches, and parked service vehicles at Spectrum Stadium and around campus.

“My brigade was responsible for 40 of Florida’s 67 counties and we immediately took maximum advantage of the central staging area [at UCF] where we could disperse across the state quickly, post hurricane,” said Slayden. “We ended up saving 327 people from rising water, providing shelter for 10,260 people, distributing 2 million bottles of water, almost 1 million MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) and 666 tons of ice — all staged from [UCF]. … It was amazing.”

For UCFPD, supporting the National Guard’s efforts is a natural partnership.

“We’re all in the public safety business: law enforcement, emergency management and the National Guard,” said Beary, who will retire on June 14 after 41 years in law enforcement. “The better we work together and the better we coordinate our efforts, the better service we provide to the citizens — and that’s what it’s all about.”

Hitt, who will step down from the presidency at the end of June, accepted the award with a message of continued community involvement from the university.

“People all around us need help and support, and it’s our responsibility as members of the community to do what we can to help our National Guard units as they attempt to safeguard the folks who live and work in these areas, including our own students and faculty and staff members,” he said. “We’re helping them help us.”