Two decades ago, the Postmaster General Heroes’ Program couldn’t have gotten off to a more dramatic start, thanks to the actions of Wilmington, DE, Letter Carrier Joseph Grabauskas.
In mid-September 2003, he and the rest of the community were worried about the impending Hurricane Isabel. But the remnants of Tropical Storm Henri were barely behind them.
According to The News Journal newspaper, Henri poured up to 10 inches of rain on the area, already soaked from a wetter than normal spring and summer. The deluge spawned flash floods that ranked among the worst since the U.S. Geological Survey began keeping records for northern Delaware’s waterways.
A raging river
Remarkably, Grabauskas recalls, it wasn’t even raining at the time he was delivering mail in the low-lying Glenville subdivision. The false sense of security gave way to a life-threatening reality as Red Clay Creek became a raging river around Glenville, soon submerging it in 12 feet of water, trapping the Postal Service employee and many residents of more than 270 homes.
Grabauskas was officially credited with securing the mail on higher ground before helping rescuers evacuate people and pets from an apartment complex.
Looking back in May 2023, shortly before his retirement after 37 years of service, Grabauskas, 59, remembers more details of a haunting day that affected him long afterward.
There were other aspects to the experience, he says, some of which weren’t publicized, some of which he rarely discusses.
Grabauskas was among the last people rescued from Glenville after efforts that stretched over five hours. Why? Emergency responders couldn’t see house numbers at locations where victims were stranded. He was needed to point out addresses.
“They’re difficult memories,” he says. “There were two kids who let go of their mom as they were trying to reach a rescue boat. The kids were completely submerged, and I reached down and grabbed one, while the other grabbed my leg.”
Then there was the customer with two Great Danes that normally “didn’t like the mailman.” Grabauskas says the dogs were much friendlier as he helped them and their owner reach safety after their rescue boat flipped over.
Although he tried to count blessings of the day — “Nobody died!” — it weighed on him: the exhausting struggle to save terrified customers and pets, the destruction of scores of homes, the devastated lives left behind when the floodwaters receded.
For a few weeks, Grabauskas visited with victims who would gather in Glenville. He participated in community fundraisers. He worked with a USPS Employee Assistance Program therapist to come to terms with the disaster, which eventually led to Glenville’s demolition.
And he was soon invited to be commended by then-Postmaster General Jack Potter during a Board of Governors meeting held at Wilmington’s Hotel du Pont.
Initially, Grabauskas was hesitant to become the first PMG hero, leading the way for around 5,500 other postal employees recognized in the 20 years since then.
The women and men of the PMG Heroes’ Program have gone above and beyond the call of duty in a variety of situations, such as assisting lost children, getting help for sick or injured customers, spotting fires, and more.
The program reflects a simple, yet powerful, idea: Because they know the habits of their customers and the rhythms of their communities, Postal Service employees are often the first to notify emergency personnel and render aid when something is wrong.
Not every hero has a tale as epic as Grabauskas does to recount, yet even the simplest acts — say, calling 911, or asking a neighbor to check on someone an employee is worried about — can have a profound effect: lives saved and lasting gratitude for the Postal Service’s reassuring presence nationwide.
After approved PMG hero nominees receive a commendation letter from Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, they are featured in “Heroes’ Corner” on Link, where it has become a popular mainstay. In 2020, the column received a national award for excellence in employee communications.
The nomination form is available via usps.link/heroes, where you can also find the “Heroes’ Corner” archives and relive two decades of heroism that illustrates how Postal Service employees do so much more for their communities than deliver mail.
Many PMG heroes, like Grabauskas, don’t relish the attention. They’ll tell you they were simply doing the right thing, as they hope anyone else would do.
“I didn’t want the recognition,” he says. “I didn’t want to hear ‘hero’ anymore. But I went down for Wilmington. I wanted them all to know: We do good things here.”
Do you have a memorable “Heroes’ Corner” story from the past two decades? Peruse the archives and tell us at email@example.com what made the hero so unforgettable to you. We’ll highlight reader favorites throughout the year.