Air Force pararescuemen join Army aircraft and air crew for one-of-a-kind squadron
By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 26, 2018
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — On a recent evening at the U.S.’s largest base in Afghanistan, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter landed with distant mountains in front of it and something unusual behind it: the headquarters of the Air Force’s 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron.
The CH-47 is an Army helicopter, but because it suits the mountainous region of northern Afghanistan, it’s being used by the 83rd ERQS — making it the first-ever joint-personnel rescue squadron comprised of Army aircraft and air crew, and Air Force pararescue specialists.
Air Force pararescuemen, or PJs, have had less to do in Afghanistan since international combat operations ended in 2014. But with U.S. airstrikes intensifying and more American boots on the ground, they expect that will change soon.
Pararescuemen specialize in recovering servicemembers in danger, such as when an aircraft crashes, a vehicle hits a bomb or a building collapses on them.
Commonly referred to as a “jack of all trades, but master of none,” a pararescueman is versed in skills such as scuba diving, parachuting, high-angle shooting, vehicle extraction and medical work.
“Before in Afghanistan, we were gone all the time,” said Air Force Maj. Rob Wilson, commander of the of the 83rd ERQS, referring to PJs deployed when international forces were still engaged in combat operations. “This time is different because we don’t have the number of boots on the ground.”
The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan peaked at 100,000 in 2012. After NATO switched to a train, advise and assist mission four years later, the number dropped to fewer than 10,000, split between NATO support and the U.S.’s separate counterterrorism mission. There are now about 15,000 U.S. troops in the country.
Wilson said it’s been about two years since PJs carried out a recovery mission in Afghanistan.
Their work is expected to pick up this year — underscored by the establishment in Kandahar of a second PJ team in Afghanistan that uses Air Force aircraft.
“So instead of having our guys on alert, waiting for something to happen, we’ll start farming out our PJs to different (special operations) teams,” Wilson said. “I’m trying to get us more in the casualty evacuation role, where we can pre-position our aircraft around Afghanistan when units say, ‘Hey this is going to be a really hot area, we need you in case one of our helicopters goes down.’”
The CH-47 should give the PJ mission a boost: it has basic resuscitative and surgical capabilities that the Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk did not.
Besides the ability to carry more people and equipment, the CH-47 can also fly longer, faster and at higher altitudes.
The entire floor of the aircraft is armored, unlike the Pave Hawks. That’s important for the PJs, who are often reaching the scene when bullets are flying.
The missions require their pilots to have skills that not every Army pilot is trained for, such as accommodating passengers who need to slide out of the helicopter on a rope when it is unable to land.
Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 3 Shawn Miller, one of the squadron’s initial CH-47 pilots, said his fellow Army pilots and air crew have been adapting to the PJs needs since the aircraft joined the squadron in October.
“We’ve done some pretty extensive training,” he said. “I think we’re very capable and very well-equipped in many of the mission sets.
“We are still working through the decision-making processes and that kind of thing, but I think we’ve broken a lot of ice in other areas.”
The Army owns the CH-47s and oversees maintaining and sustaining them. The Air Force decides when and how to use them to best suit mission needs. The setup creates the possibility of discord, should they disagree on a mission’s risk level.
The joint squadron has yet to conduct an official mission after six months of training, but so far, Miller said the PJs “have been pretty reasonable about the acceptance of mission approvals and what we do typically on the Army side.”
The general mood around the 83rd ERQS headquarters is that their work will pick up in the coming weeks as the fighting season begins.
“The season is warming up. The buildup is coming,” said one of the 14 PJs who, together with 28 Army personnel, make up the squadron. “I don’t hope for it, but it’s what we’ve been training for.”
With their winter training complete, the main task now is informing units of the squadron’s abilities in a new phase of the 16-year war.
“Our primary job here is going around and educating everyone on what we can do, what we can offer and how they can get us,” Wilson said. “We’re constantly telling people: ‘This is what we do now, these are the capabilities we bring now versus back then.’”