You know about the SEALS, the Green Berets and even the Delta Force special ops units but have you heard of the USAF PJs? There’s a good chance you have not.
They’re some of the U.S. military’s most elite and highly trained operatives, dedicated to saving lives in rugged, hostile terrain.
The Air Force’s pararescue special forces, also known as parajumpers or “PJs,” are the ultimate warriors: Trained in both emergency rescue and medical care, these specialists are the men behind high-risk rescues, with a mission to recover fallen warriors, treat their injuries and get them out alive.
It’s a mandate that puts these operatives’ lives on the line: Just last month, three pararescuemen were among 30 American casualties in the single bloodiest episode for U.S. forces in the Afghanistan war when their helicopter was downed by Taliban insurgents. “When everything goes wrong, they call us,” Lt. Col. Jeremy Turner, director of operations for the 41st Rescue Squadron at Georgia’s Moody Air Force Base, a pararescue training hub, told The Daily, “You don’t have time to think about being scared. ”With the motto “These things we do, that others may live,” these men go where nobody else can — up mountains, through jungles or into heavy fire — as the only unit mandated by the Department of Defense to recover personnel stranded behind enemy lines.
Most often, PJs are called on to save U.S. or allied military crews whose planes or helicopters have crashed or been shot down. But they also conduct civilian rescues and have participated in NASA missions for decades. Much like special operatives in other military branches, including Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs, pararescuemen are selected after a grueling process that weeds out anyone who can’t perform each of the required 250 core skills.
A two-year program, informally dubbed “Superman School,” graduates a mere 10 percent of enlistees, all of whom must be male. The Navy SEALS graduate 30 percent of those who are accepted in the program.
Wannabe PJs learn to swim, rock-climb and treat gunshot wounds, and need to pass a fitness exam far more difficult than what’s expected of other military personnel, including a 1½-mile run in under 10:30, a 500-meter swim in less than 16 minutes, a 20-meter underwater swim and 50 sit-ups in under two minutes.The program’s training days often start at 4:30 a.m. with a combination of running, strength training, swimming, drills and classroom work.
Sometimes, in a rite of passage known as an “extended training day,” PJ trainees are rushed into helicopters to perform simulated rescues — overnight. Passing the training program is only the beginning: Once they’re vetted for the unit, operatives train every single day, often conducting simulated rescues that include scuba diving, parachuting and static line-jumping from a helicopter. “We train like we fight and we fight like we train,” said Staff Sgt. Mark Bedell, a PJ who estimates he’s executed more than 300 rescue missions during three deployments to Afghanistan. “Skills can fade very fast. The ones we have are so highly technical that we need to … keep them honed to perfection.”The Air Force officially launched its pararescue program in 1944, with the first organized rescue performed in a hostile region of Japanese-occupied Burma during World War II:
Twenty people, including military personnel and CBS reporter Eric Sevareid, were evacuated by parachuting operatives. Since then, the PJ program has been refined to perfection, and crews have successfully completed thousands of missions. During the Korean War, they were credited with saving 1,000 military personnel from behind enemy lines, and in Vietnam, pararescuemen dropped into jungles, swamps and mountains to evacuate some 4,100 people.“When the history of this war is finally written, I feel that the story of Air Rescue may well become one of the outstanding human dramas in the entire history of the Air Force,” Harold Brown, a former defense secretary in the Carter administration and secretary of the Air Force during the Vietnam War, said of the pararescue forces. “The dedication shown on an everyday basis … makes these rescue operations something unique in our military history.
”The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also have called heavily on the unique skills of the pararescuemen. Since 9/11, they are credited with saving at least 1,000 lives in combat zones overseas.But the teams have also faced added dangers: Insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have specifically targeted rescue crews, using ambushes and IEDs that make pararescue missions even more hazardous.
Before they hit the ground, PJs rely on fully loaded planes and helicopters to help them reach their destination and then unleash a torrent of gunfire from the air to clear the area of enemy combatants. The HH-60, a modified Black Hawk helicopter, is the perfect combination of speed and maneuverability to navigate challenging terrain. PJs refer to the helicopters as “our ride to work,” because the HH-60s are the top choice for taking crews to a mission location.And the A-10 Warthog, a jet aircraft introduced by the Air Force in 1977 for close air support, is still one of the deadliest, most resilient aircraft in the military’s arsenal: Armed with a 30-millimeter Gatling gun that fires 4,000 rounds a minute, an A-10 attack can tear through a tank’s armor.“Those A10s, when you hear them coming in, it’s the sweetest sound that you can hear,” Bedell said. “You can hear the sound of them firing, you see the rounds impacting exactly where you told them to and you know those bad guys are not having a good day.”Along with helicopters and fighter jets circling above, a host of specialized equipment accompanies each team on every mission.
Because they don’t know what they’ll face upon arrival, pararescue crews travel with everything from scuba gear and snowmobiles to off-road motorcycles and oxygen masks. They’re also armed to the teeth: Machine guns and sniper rifles are critical for these small teams, which often face off against larger groups of combatants.“Whenever you go on a mission, you never know what problem is going to come up,” Turner said. “You always have to have something in your bag of tricks to solve it.
”The elite operatives also perform civilian rescues, from natural disasters to downed commercial airplanes. After Hurricane Katrina, PJs from the Air Force’s 943rd Rescue Group were credited with saving 1,043 lives even while struggling with extreme weather conditions that kept other rescuers at bay.“In the case of Katrina, it was here at home and we tried to deliver as much as we could,” said Turner, who piloted rescue helicopters.Whether in combat zones or civilian environs, these men risk it all for one reason: to keep Americans, at home and abroad, safe. And throughout their grueling training and deployments, they depend on the unbreakable bonds forged within their close-knit cadres.“Pararescuemen is a deep brotherhood,” Bedell said. “We train constantly together. We deploy together … So we trust each other with our lives.”
RIP USAF Captain Joseph Michael Fahey DOD 2/11/1962 Vietnam