By Jodi Kendall January 25, 2013

Behind the Scenes with the Pararescuemen

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!

Nat Geo TV App

The Nat Geo TV App

Watch your favorite National Geographic Channel shows the day after they air.

Download on the App StoreGet it on Google Play