CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan — The Afghan boy lay naked and trembling beneath a woolen blanket in the dimly lit helicopter cabin, bleeding from a gunshot wound. The smell of fuel and dirt hung in the air as the deafening sound of the engine and rotors churned around him.
His father crouched nearby, watching with curiosity and fear as three pararescuemen worked methodically to save his son’s life. Though warlike in appearance, their calm, gentle demeanor reassured the father.
As the helicopter tore through the night sky on its way to the military hospital at Camp Bastion in Helmand province, a second one flew in tandem. Two helicopters, four pilots, four gunners and six pararescuemen all with a single mission: Save the boy.
When an Air Force combat rescue team lifts off from Camp Bastion in a pair of HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, they become a flying paradox: A lethal war machine full of highly trained combatants whose mission is to save lives rather than destroy them. Heavily armed and fully armored, the helicopters carry the Guardian Angels, a team of warfighters often more like archangels.
“We’re all meat eaters. We have sharp teeth,” Combat Rescue Officer and Pararescueman Capt. Brock Roden said.
“The first thing I’m thinking about is shooting back. I’ve got my weapon raised. But it’s all geared toward going in there and picking the guy up,” he said. “You’ve got to have that aggressive mentality.”
Their call sign “Pedro,” which refers to the pilots and crew, was resurrected from Vietnam for the mission in Afghanistan. The pararescuemen, who are trained to work from any land, air or sea vessel, are nicknamed PJs.
While their core function is combat rescue and the personnel recovery of downed aircraft, Air Force pararescue teams also fly throughout Afghanistan augmenting the Army medevac mission.
Though medevac and pararescue overlap in terms of pulling the wounded from the battlefield, they are distinctively different. While medevac adheres to the Geneva Conventions by flying in unarmed helicopters marked with red crosses, pararescue flies in unmarked birds equipped with two .50 caliber machine guns. And they carry the guardian angels.
“We are a weapons system, we are armed,” Senior Airman and Pararescueman Jason Sweet said. “We’re shooters, divers, jumpers, technical rescue specialists. We’re ready to rescue anyone, anywhere, anytime.”
While the inception of Air Force combat rescue began in 1947, its legacy has been forged in every conflict since Korea.
The helicopters fly in pairs, one designated as the trail aircraft, and one as lead. Each is capable of landing in the hot zone or providing covering fire from above.
“They all work as one flying unit. It’s a continuous conversation between the lead and trail aircraft.” Roden said.
“When trail goes in to do the pickup and they have enemy fire, they know they have the bird overhead that they’ve trained with. They know the tactics; they know the specific patterns they’re going to fly. They know they’re going to keep that gun on them,” Roden said. “Those guys overhead are going to make damn sure they come out of there.”
Pave Hawk helicopters are modified with special protection, communication and navigation systems along with weather radar. The combined technology allows them to fly in any condition. They also have in-flight refueling capability, giving them the ability to fly longer-range missions.
Pilot and Air Expeditionary Group Commander Col. Damon Reynolds hasn’t found the scenario the Pedros wouldn’t fly into to rescue the wounded.
According to Reynolds, Air Force combat rescue upholds a covenant that U.S. armed forces have with the American people.
“I am the guy who must get up and train my babies everyday to be as lethal, nasty and mean and ugly as they have to,” within the Rules of Engagement, Reynolds said. “We made a deal with your momma and daddy, and your wife and family, that if they send you over, we will do everything we can to get you back.”
PJs undergo some of the most rigorous training in the armed services. The 9-week initial selection process is nicknamed the “Superman” course, and their two-year training program, known as the pipeline, has an 85 percent washout rate.
By graduation, each PJ is trained extensively in advanced parachuting, weapons and tactical maneuvering, combat diving, survival skills, ropes and mountaineering, extrications, battlefield trauma and more.
“There’s something completely different about the few guys who complete the training compared to the hoard of people who started,” Staff Sgt. and Pararescueman Corey Largo said.
“It’s an unquestioning faith in each other and a desire to bring people home, and to do some crazy [expletive] to make that happen.”
“PJs are a wild bunch of dudes,” he said. “We care for each other, very deeply. And we care for other people.”
Most agree that the mix is what drew them to the job.
“God made me a very aggressive person, but he gave me a very compassionate side as well,” Sweet said.
Into the war
War stories have always been about near misses, and the Pedros and PJs have their share of them.
Recently, insurgents attacked the lead helicopter as it covered their trail aircraft while pulling the wounded from a hot landing zone.
As Pedro gunners returned fire, a bullet tore through the cabin, passing just inches between Parescuemen Staff Sgt. Chris Bowerfind and Master Sgt. Matt Schrader. That single round, whose trajectory was hell bent on causing mayhem, then struck the tail rotor control cable, nearly severing it.
If the cable were broken, the pilots would have lost control of the rear rotor.
“I don’t think we would have crashed, but we would have had to do a hard landing,” Roden said later. “We were taking heavy fire; they were definitely trying to shoot us down.”
“It’s all business,” said Schrader, a former Force Recon Marine whose nickname is Papa Bear, about the attack.
“All I can think about is my guys. If I get hit, that’s one thing, but if one of my guys gets hit, that’s horrible,” Schrader said. “We all signed up for it, we all know. But I’m responsible for the guys.”
For Bowerfind, the firefight was emblematic of the pararescue paradox.
“If I have to take a life, I will,” he said. Yet his resolve is tempered by compassion and experience.
“Knowing that there is no glamour in killing somebody or seeing one of your friends get hurt or killed really helps you to focus more on what you need to do to save a life,” said Bowerfind, who served as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller for an Army Special Forces team before becoming a PJ.
Battling ‘the reaper’
While saving lives is what they do, they don’t always win, and sometimes the loss stays with them.
During the height of the fighting season last summer, a pararescue team came under fire as they pulled two Marines severely wounded in a rocket-propelled grenade attack.
One Marine was covered in shrapnel wounds, the other gravely wounded and without vital signs. As the PJs worked to push the life back into his bloody and torn body, his buddy lay nearby, crying for him and calling for the Marines they left behind.
Not long after they landed at the hospital at Camp Bastion, three PJs gathered outside the emergency entrance. As they turned to leave, a British soldier wheeled a gurney quietly behind them. It was draped with an American flag.
In a few hours, somewhere in the states, a young wife with a newborn son would learn her husband died in a war that they -- and many other soldiers and Marines -- fear too few care about.
“I don’t want to forget them because I think that’s part of honoring them,” Pararescueman and Senior Airman Caleb Kiley said.
Every loss is tough, but this one was a little tougher. Kiley couldn’t stop thinking about the Marine who made it.
“The guy was completely riddled with shrapnel, all up and down his back and legs. But he was not concerned about his injuries; he was worried about his buddy. And that’s something I think most people don’t understand,” he said.
“Seeing that kind of made me angry because you go on the news and they’re talking about some celebrity, and you’ll never see these kids get mentioned. If people don’t have someone they know over here, it is almost like what happens doesn’t exist.”
The Pedros and the PJs don’t like to lose, and they look to cheat death every chance they get. When Bowerfind flies, he has a message for “the reaper.“
“When we’re coming in, I look down there and I say, ‘Not today, that guy’s mine, I’m taking him, not you. This guy’s going home, he belongs to us.’”