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Behind the Scenes with the Pararescuemen

Inside Combat Rescue

Inside Combat Rescue (View larger version)

By Jodi Kendall

Published

The concept of pararescue took shape during World War II when 21 people bailed out of a disabled airplane over a wild, mountainous jungle along the China-Burma border. As the remote crash site was unreachable by land or sea, the only way to save the survivors was through paradrop. Three brave medical corpsmen volunteered to parachute deep into the unexplored territory and, with the help of Burmese civilians, cared for the injured party for an entire month until they could all be lifted to safety.

In the last 70 years, pararescue has evolved into a 500-member elite part of the United States Air Force. Since 1947, only 3,208 total men have been selected, vetted and served as pararescuemen. These highly trained, versatile individuals provide necessary emergency medical treatment to stabilize and evacuate injured military members and civilians during times of both peace and war. Pararescuemen – called PJs –  are deployed on critical life-saving missions across the globe into a diverse range of non-permissive environments. They're the most highly decorated Air Force enlisted force, with one Medal of Honor, 12 Air Force Crosses, and 105 Silver Stars to their name. The pararescue motto These Things We Do, That Others May Live affirms their pledge to save lives and recognizes their self-sacrifice.

The Pipeline

Pararescue initiation training – called 'the pipeline' – lasts about two years. It challenges pararescue candidates both physically and mentally through a series of schools and events, equipping future PJs in areas like advanced weapons and tactics and cold weather training, night jumps, survival skills, combat dive school, parachuting and combat medical expertise. The mental and physical challenges are endless and, at the end of the program, the goal is that each graduated Pararescueman will have overcome his previous fears and conquered every physical and mental test. 

The pipeline is known as some of the most difficult training offered in the U.S. military. In order to gain entry into the program, Pararescue prospects must meet the strict qualifying physical and mental standards. The must pass the Physical Ability Stamina Test (PAST), with a minimum standard of 2x25m underwater swim, 500m swim in 10:07 minutes, 1.5 mile run in 9:47 minutes, ten good form pull-ups in one minute, 54 sit-ups in two minutes, and 52 good form push-ups in two minutes. Additionally, they must be able to complete a class III flight physical, score exceptionally high on the ASAB and undergo psychological testing. Each graduate must be vetted and cleared for a Secret Security clearance. Combat Rescue Officers – CROs for short – complete the same pipeline training as the PJs with the exception of advanced medical training. Since the program's exit standards are much higher, competitive times are highly encouraged in order to successfully complete the pararescue program. to be accepted into the pararescuemen program. Additionally, all PJ’s and CRO’s throughout their career are vetted and tested every year.

While the intense selection and qualification process challenges men in different ways depending on their pre-existing physical and mental capabilities, fears and life experiences, a vast majority of PJs would say that pool drills and water confidence events were the most difficult. Other pararescuemen will say that endurance events – such as ruck marches, sub-7 minute mile runs, team building events and the nonstop calisthenics – were the toughest. 

During training, PJs must become comfortable with night jumping in full combat equipment with SCUBA tanks in the open ocean – even if it's in the middle of the night from 26,000 feet – and being alone for days in the cold outback with limited supplies while avoiding enemy capture. Other pipeline challenges may include rescuing simulated victims from collapsed structures with smoke and debris obstructing entry and escape, climbing a 1000-foot cliff to haul up or down simulated casualties, or hanging by a thin cable 200-feet in the air beneath a hovering helicopter. And, despite all of these strenuous physical and mental challenges, for some PJs the toughest part of the pipeline is the endless time away from loved ones.

Many Airmen fail to meet the program's exceptionally high standards and even more self-eliminate during training – With a washout rate of 90%, very few individuals make the cut. But the pipeline's intensity is necessary to create a highly qualified elite unit of Airmen and build trust between pararescuemen. When on an official mission, lives are at stake, and trained PJs and CROs can assess a situation quickly and react instinctively in the most hazardous, high-stress combat situations. These elite, highly adaptive men don't quit and refuse to lose, no matter the challenge at hand.

At the graduation ceremony following their pipeline training, a Pararescueman is awarded the distinctive honor of wearing a maroon beret with the pararescue flash – a tradition that began in 1966. CROs are also awarded the maroon beret with a CRO flash. USAF Pararescue is only the second elite military force in the Department of Defense authorized the wear of a beret, and the first in the United States Air Force. These symbols acknowledge the dedicated training and self-sacrifice one undergoes so "That Others May Live" and represents the blood they have and will shed in order to help those in need.

PJs on Mission

Pararescuemen have extensive abilities, making them the most qualified personnel recovery specialists on the planet. Weather conditions, terrain and political situations vary from mission-to-mission, and these men are experts in advanced weapons, airborne and military free fall, combat divers and battlefield trauma/paramedics. All PJs can perform static line and HALO jump missions employing boats, vehicles or fixed wing aircraft, parajump with extrication devices, and rappel and hoist from any vertical lift aircraft to both land and open water rescue operations. CROs, while not on every mission, serve as the ground force commander, focusing on the "up and out" tactical requirements. CROs and PJs have a symbiotic relationship, built on trust and mutual respect. 

These Battlefield Airmen have been tasked and utilized in over 35,000 combat and humanitarian rescue missions over the years. Some missions may take an hour or less, while others can take days or even weeks to complete. PJs have reported stabilizing a soldier's injury and hoisting him off the side of a mountain in Afghanistan, recovering sensitive items off the coast of Africa despite hazards like pirates, marine life, night diving and strong currents, and recovering the bodies from a Navy patrol bomber high on the Polar Ice Cap, facing dangers like high winds, steep ridges and sub-zero temperatures. PJs have entered the kill-zone to rescue the wounded while ignoring their own injuries, dangled from a cable during a flurry of enemy fire, faced bomb-dropping jets and treated victims with massive wounds, severe burns, and blown-off limbs in the heat of combat. 

Three notable missions to-date include the 1966 recovery of astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and David R. Scott after their emergency splashdown during NASA's Gemini program, and reaching and tending to injured motorists under a collapsed highway following the catastrophic 1989 San Francisco earthquake. In 2010, United States Air Force Pararescuemen evacuated 300+ Afghans who were stranded by more than 36 avalanches – and they completed the mission despite the biting, whipping wind, minus-40 degree weather, waist-deep snow, and the possibility of enemy threats or more avalanches. 

Since 9/11, United States Air Force Pararescuemen have performed over 12,000 life-saving combat rescue missions and 5000 humanitarian rescue missions. Whether their targets are captured behind enemy lines, surrounded by adversaries, isolated in high or low altitudes, splashed down in the middle of the ocean, or affected by natural disasters, PJs will do whatever it takes to bring those in danger home safely.

For the first time ever, camera crews embed on a deployment to Afghanistan with the U.S. Air Force's elite pararescue team as they fly day and night to save those in peril on the battlefield. Tune into INSIDE COMBAT RESCUE MONDAYS at 10pm on the National Geographic Channel to follow the PJs on assignment!

16 comments
Tina Flippin
Tina Flippin

What does "CRO" stand for? Love this show! I think these men are amazing. Thanks to all of them for serving our Country.

Stephanie Luben
Stephanie Luben

Just found the show and love it. These guys are great! There's no better job better than serving our soldiers, especially our wounded soldiers!

Daniel Ele
Daniel Ele

I am an ex-firefighter from Vietnam Era and a (Cross-trained) Medic.  I was a bit excited to see the shows being shown on NG channel until, I seen the last of the episodes, where they lost an American soldier.

I am currently a Trauma Respiratory Therapist of 26 years and I was also trained in the late 70's as a Paramedic in Los Angeles.

I want to know why the PJ's did not start two bi-lateral external jugular large bore I.V.'s and dump under pressure whole blood, ringers lactate and albumin.  Also, why they did not do CPR on the G.I. ?

Shelly Dunn
Shelly Dunn

The PJs rescued my son and his fellow injured Marines in Afghanistan after they suffered an IED attack that killed one of their teammates. They later provided us with video and photos from their helmet-mounted Hero cameras (which you can see on the show). It's amazing to be able to watch your son rescued after being seriously injured. I watch the show and try to see if any of the guys are part of the crew that helped our boys. Thanks to the PJs for all you do! 

Greg Travis
Greg Travis

As I was watching the show, I wonder why the PJ's don't use any type of dust mask's. Inhaling all that dust on landing, and take off can't be good for them.

Russell Taylor
Russell Taylor

Does anyone know the purpose for the black masks that some of the flight crerw wear over their faces connected to their helmets?

SL Lewis
SL Lewis

Lori,

The book is "None Braver" by Michael Hirsh.  Amazon has it along with a Kindle version.

Lori Duchesne
Lori Duchesne

Love the series.  Haven't missed an episode yet.  I have a new found respect for all that you do every day risking your lives to bring back the injured.  May God keep you all safe during all of your missions.

I do have two questions though.

1:  What is said over the PA system prior to every mission?

2:  One of the PJ's on this week or last week's episode was reading a book I believe he mentioned was about previous PJ's and the missions they've been on.  Could you please tell me the name of that book and it's author? My son and I are avid readers and followers of the series and wold love to read this book as well.

Thank you for all that you do.  For your service to our Country.  May God continue to keep you all safe and bring you home to your loved ones.    

Lori Duchesne

Dracut, Ma, United States 

Lori Duchesne
Lori Duchesne

Love the series.  Haven't missed an episode yet.  I have a new found respect for all that you do every day risking your lives to bring back the injured.  May God keep you all safe during all of your missions.

I do have two questions though.

1:  What is said over the PA system prior to every mission?

2:  One of the PJ's on this week or last week's episode was reading a book I believe he mentioned was about previous PJ's and the missions they've been on.  Could you please tell me the name of that book and it's author? My son and I are avid readers and followers of the series and wold love to read this book as well.

Thank you for all that you do.  For your service to our Country.  May God continue to keep you all safe and bring you home to your loved ones.    

Greg Travis
Greg Travis

As with all service people, these folks deserve MAJOR props. And yes, they are amazing, and I thank each and every one of you.

Jack Lynch Jr.
Jack Lynch Jr.

The masks are used to eliminate the noise from the rotors and the wind from the HH60.  

Russell Taylor
Russell Taylor

What are the masks for used by the pilots and I believe gunners on the HH60's?

James Bierly
James Bierly

@Lori Duchesne The PA system yells Leroy Jenkins. Its an older joke related to the videogame World of Warcraft.

Russell Taylor
Russell Taylor

Thanks.  I'm assuming it's not a mandatory piece of equipment if they all don't wear them.  Makes sense with the doors being opened/removed.