News: Total-Force Airmen to the rescue in Afghanistan
Story by Tech. Sgt. Oshawn Jefferson
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — "Scramble, Scramble, Scramble!"
U.S. Airmen from the 66th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron are in full sprint mode, a controlled chaos that feels like a mad dash at a Black Friday sale where video-game consoles are flying off the shelves for $1. It's a Category-A evacuation, which means a person is in need of urgent medical evacuation, or experiencing undo suffering — loss of a life or limb could hang in the balance.
Two HH-60GPave Hawk helicopters are mandated to be in the air in 15 minutes, but these Total Force Airmen are in the air in less than 10. Their motto "These things we do, that others may live" is not an empty slogan but a way of life in Afghanistan.
"Our Airmen take their jobs seriously," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Duffy, 66th ERQS commander, deployed from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. "When we go on any mission we know that someone's life hangs in the balance and we are the lifeline that could mean the difference between life and death.
Flight crews, maintenance and operations from the 66th Rescue Squadron at Nellis AFB, 41st RSQ at Moody AFB, Ga., and 55th RSQ at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., as well as Pararescue Jumpers, who are Air Force Reservists from Portland, Ore's. 304th RQS make up the more than 160 Total-Force Airmen rescue squadron deployed here.
While half the unit is stationed at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, the other half is at Kandahar with a unique mission. More than 66 percent of the evacuation calls they receive are to assist the Afghan national army, Afghan national police or local nationals.
"We don't care who we have to pick up," said Maj. Vic Pereira, 66th ERQS director of operations deployed from Davis-Monthan. "We show the same dedication and duty when we pick up our Afghan allies as we would if we were picking up any of our coalition partners. We are proud to be able to show the Afghans that we care, and that builds positive relationships with them, so they know if they need us, rescue Airmen will be there."
While participating in the highest sustained operations since the Vietnam War, 66th ERQS Airmen have flown 1,103 hours, generated 1,252 sorties, aided in saving 195 lives and has logged 462 assists since October 2009. Assists are causalities in Category B, where injuries are stable but the patient needs to be moved or Category C, where injuries are routine, such as twisted ankles and abscesses on teeth.
"It feels good to be a part of a successful mission that you fully believe in," said Senior Airmen Christopher Sobel, 66th ERQs pararescue jumper, deployed from the 304th RQS. "I always believed helping people and caring for people in a wartime environment is what makes this job unique and I couldn't imagine helping to save lives anywhere else."
With the immediacy of their mission, an aircraft malfunction would mean aircrews and PJs would not get to a causality. That is why maintenance Airmen spend more than 50 hours a week maintaining the helicopters to keep them ready to fly.
"We have to keep these aircraft mission capable at all times, no exceptions," said Senior Airman Brandon Paris, 66th ERQS helicopter crew chief, deployed from the 55th Helicopter Maintenance Unit at Davis-Monthan AFB. "Our aircrews have to be able to meet their objectives at all times because it really could mean the difference between life and death."
His fellow maintenance Airmen agreed.
"We are helping our coalition partners and the Afghan nation," said Staff Sgt. Mark Seiter, 66th ERQS flying crew chief, deployed from the 55th HMU at Davis-Monthan AFB. "When we get a call and it's a local, we know that our crews getting there and saving their people builds trust, it lets them know we are the good guys and we are here to help."
With lives on the line, these Airmen know that while they could be speeding to save a life, they could also be speeding into danger, this is a war zone after all, and these Airmen are well aware of the dangers of the job.
"There are unique obstacles in Afghanistan, mountains, brown-out approaches, low-light pickups and enemy combatants," said French Air Force Maj. Guillaume Vernet, a helicopter pilot deployed from the Escadron Helicopteres 01-067 "Pyrenees" in France and the only operational helicopter unit foreign-exchange pilot in the Air Force. "Even though we are in a rush, a lot of thought goes into what we do. We know a life hangs in the balance, but we also know if we don't get in and out safely, nobody wins."