That others may live" is the motto for the Air Force’s pararescueman.
Pararescue jumpers, or PJs, make up an elite corps of pararescuemen responsible for combat search and rescue missions.
This team of highly trained pararescuemen performed a combat search and rescue training mission Feb. 24 in support of the air assets for the Combined Forces Air Component commander.
"Our goal is to get everyone on my team and everyone we’re trying to rescue back home safe and alive," said Staff Sgt. Jon McKenzie, a pararescueman assigned to the 64th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron at Balad Air Base, Iraq.
Sergeant McKenzie stressed the importance of training in his line of work.
"We always train, train and then train some more," the Cape Cod, Mass., Airman said. "You can never train enough. You accomplish one mission rehearsal after another and work as a team to get the job done."
After an intelligence briefing, the team gathered its gear and loaded it into an HH-60G Pave Hawk. While two well-armed and equipped pararescuemen prepared their gear, the pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and gunner performed their preflight checks on their familiar Pave Hawk for this particular CSAR rehearsal mission.
With a pararescueman dangling from the opened side doors, the HH-60 took off carrying the team that performed its rehearsal mission in black-out night conditions.
When pararescuemen are alerted, their mission is situational dependent, Sergeant McKenzie said.
"There are so many factors that come into play, whether it’s the terrain we’re landing on, the enemy we’re against or the air assets. There are so many inputs on how we do our jobs and the limits to what we can do and care for," he added.
"It’s also different if the scene is secure, if there’s a type of crash below versus getting shot at or diving in a canal to recover a body — it’s just so many different missions we can do over here," the 25 year old said.
With nothing to illuminate their path but the glow of the moon and stars, aircrew and pararescuemen examined the terrain for enemy combatants with their night vision goggles.
The first leg of the mission was uneventful. The aircrew located its site and landed. The pararescuemen exited the aircraft and the aircrew took off to perform evasive maneuvers. After monitoring coordinates, and scouting for enemy, the aircrew hovered over the site while securing a simulated downed aircrew member.
"We’re different from other rescue forces," said Tech. Sgt. William Hardin, a 64th ERQS pararescueman. "We’re not an attack or assault force, but we do have the right to defend ourselves and our patients."
They performed figure eights where the helicopter would bank from side to side. On some occasions, the chopper would position squarely perpendicular to the ground with the side doors open.
For most passengers, it would feel like they could literally fall out. But, due to the speed and momentum of the helicopter, the passenger is safely planted and cemented in the belly of the bird.
The pilots’ practice ended and they preceded to pickup the pararescuemen from their mission. The repelling and hoisting rehearsal began.
This is when the helicopter hovers at approximately 50 to 100 feet off the ground and drops a rope allowing the pararescuemen to repel downward.
Once there, the helicopter circles around and tests its hoist by recovering the pararescuemen. The team completed a successful training mission and returned to its base.
Sergeant McKenzie credits the success of each mission to the support his team receives before it leaves the ground.
"I have to give kudos to the maintainers here," he said. "They bust their tails day in and day out ensuring these aircraft are mission-ready. We really appreciate them."
Penetrating hostile areas to rescue and recover survivors is an arduous and strenuous task that approximately 430 pararescuemen are trained to accomplish.
Pararescuemen are certified scuba divers and skilled in surface water operations, both scuba and amphibious. They’re also trained combat medics and certified emergency medical technician paramedics.