Alabama Guard community rallies to find missing girl

Photo of Vadie Sides

Vadie Sides sits with a volunteer after being found March 27, 2020 in Lee County, Ala. Vadie, the 4-year-old daughter of an Alabama Air National Guardsman, was missing for more than 48 hours and had no serious injuries. (Courtesy photo)

Photo of volunteers

Volunteers, including members of the Alabama Air National Guard, pose for a group photo after finding Vadie Sides March 27, 2020 in Lee County, Ala. The group was part of the search effort to find Vadie, the 4-year-old daughter of an Air Guardsman who was lost in the woods for more than 48 hours. Vadie was found in good spirits and with no serious injuries. (Courtesy photo)

LEE COUNTY, Ala. --

Capt. Stephen Sides was halfway up the driveway of his Macon County, Alabama home when he got the phone call. His 4-year-old daughter, Evelyn “Vadie” Sides, had gone missing.

Sides, a logistics management specialist with the Alabama Air National Guard’s 226th Combat Communications Group in Montgomery, was returning from a normal work day the afternoon of Wednesday, March 25, 2020, when he received the news. His daughter had been on a walk with her dog when they both disappeared into the woods, moving too quickly for her elderly caregiver to keep up. Sides traveled immediately to the caretaker’s residence in Lee County and began searching where Vadie had last been seen.

“I never left the woods there,” Sides later said. “I would come in to hydrate then turn around and go right back out.”

The missing child alert was broadcasted that evening. Within hours, word spread around the 226th that an Airman needed help. Airmen from the 187th Fighter Wing in Montgomery, the 226th’s host wing, began making plans to join the search.

“My first phone call (after the missing child alert) was from Col. Troy Morgan, the 226th Group commander, wanting to check in and see what they could do to help,” Sides continued. “After talking with him, the very next morning, he and lot of the staff from the 226th came out to volunteer their time to assist.”

Law enforcement had been searching the woods overnight with dogs, drones, and Alabama Law Enforcement Agency search and rescue aircraft equipped with thermal cameras to no avail. Grid searches on foot came up empty. By Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Vadie had gone missing, more Airmen from the Alabama Air National Guard showed up to volunteer. The search effort expanded to also include Alabama National Guard Soldiers, military retirees, and civilian volunteers.

“There were many guys from the 187th who were with me all through the night,” Sides remembered. “We saw the sun set, and saw the sun rise while we were still in the woods. And then those guys turned right around to catch an hour or two of sleep before they had to go back to work.”

Another night of searching came and went. On Friday, hundreds of volunteers were canvassing miles of terrain.

At around 3:20 p.m., a line of searchers that included Guard Airmen found Vadie, alive and without any serious injuries. Her dog had stayed with her through the two days lost in the woods, and she was in good spirits.

Col. Morgan was part of the line and called Capt. Sides to tell him Vadie had been found.

“I was searching in a different area of the woods when Col. Morgan called me Friday afternoon,” Sides remembered. “I answered and he told me, ‘We’ve found her!’. Col. Morgan gave the phone to Vadie to talk to me and the first words she spoke were ‘Hey daddy’. I was washed over with relief.”

“That was incredible,” Morgan said. “It was the best feeling to know that she was okay and (Sides) didn’t have to worry any more. Because he knew that his Guard family was there with her.”

Although the search effort included personnel from around Alabama and several agencies, the immediate response from Guard volunteers made an impact on the Sides family.

“It was phenomenal,” Sides said. “We could not have asked for any more support from the community, and to be part of an organization like that, with members who are focused on family and focused on that sense of community, it’s just absolutely amazing. Hands down, the (Alabama Air National Guard) came in and saved the day.”

“I am so grateful, beyond words, that the Alabama Guard came together and helped in this crisis,” Morgan agreed. “Even though we’re a (geographically separated unit), we’re all the same family, and it was really amazing to see how much help and support that our 187th Fighter Wing brothers and sisters who didn’t even know Capt. Sides provided.”