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International rescue effort saves trapped soccer team

Thai Rescue

Airmen from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) prepare for dive operations July 2, 2018, at Chiang Rai, Thailand. At the request of the Royal Thai government, the United States, through USINDOPACOM, sent a search and rescue team from Okinawa, Japan to assist Thai rescue authorities in locating 12 youth football players and their coach. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Jessica Tait)

Thai Rescue

Airmen from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) visit Tham Luang Cave in Northern Thailand to meet with Royal Thai military officials and authorities to assess conditions June 28, 2018, at Chiang Rai, Thailand. The team is in Thailand to support the tremendous efforts by Thai authorities and appreciates the hospitality of the Royal Thai government as they work together in this time of crisis. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Jessica Tait)

Thai Rescue

Airmen from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) conduct a combined land survey with Thai rescue authorities July 1, 2018, at Chiang Rai, Thailand. The United States team delivers search and rescue experience and capacity to the already tremendous effort underway by Thai authorities. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Jessica Tait)


Twelve boys ranging from the age of 11 to 16, along with their soccer coach, found themselves stranded in a cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, June 23, 2018. After 17 days of being trapped, an international rescue team was able to successfully bring an end to the nearly 3-week rescue operation.

Amongst the international rescue team were Kadena’s very own. The request from the Thailand government came roughly three days after Thailand rescue efforts began. Less than 12 hours later, members of the 320th Special Tactics Squadron from the 353rd Special Operations Group and members of the 31st Rescue Squadron from the 18th Wing were ready to go.

Upon arrival, members were divided into teams to complete different tasks in order to move forward with the rescue mission. Some assessed possible rescue operations at the mouth of the cave while others created helicopter landing zones by clearing areas of the surrounding jungle and planned for scuba tank cache locations.

With 24-hour operations and 16 to 18 hour shifts, the international rescue team worked around the clock to overcome the many challenges they faced.

“It’s important for people to understand that this kind of rescue had never been attempted by anyone in the world,” said Tech. Sgt. Adam Lopez, 31st RQS pararescueman. “It was the most technically difficult mission any of us have ever been involved with.”

Confined space diving is considered to be extremely hazardous for even the most highly trained and competent divers, making it a high-risk mission for the rescuers and those trapped in the cave, he explained.

Unsure of where the children were within the cave and whether they were even alive, the team needed to operate with a problem-solving mindset and communicate with all others in the rescue effort – regardless of the inevitable communication barriers – to determine what efforts could be provided and by who.

“It was important for all the different supporting players to come together because everyone brought a different expertise to the table – no single entity had all the skills or answers to be able to complete the rescue,” said Tech. Sgt. Michael Smith, 31st RQS pararescueman, “We all had something to offer and we needed to be united to complete the mission.”

As soon as the location of the children was determined, safety and risk mitigation became a priority for the rescue team and all others involved in the rescue effort to ensure the best possible outcome, explained Staff Sgt. Jamie Brisbin, 31st RQS pararescueman.

Having found the children, the international rescue team began the real prep work for fulfilling the rescue plan. However, because of the complexity of the rescue effort, the team feared the loss of some of the children, unsure that everyone would survive.

“Due to the technical difficulty of this mission we didn’t expect all of the children to survive the rescue, Lopez said. “However, we had the right people and equipment in place and we knew that due to the low oxygen levels in the cave, as well as the worsening weather that was sure to further flood the cave, we had a small window of time to execute a rescue and the risk mitigation that went into planning this rescue was done with such a high level of attention to detail that we knew the plan was solid.”

Team Kadena took on the role of executing logistics dives inside the cave to preposition scuba tanks that would later be used for divers to swap used tanks for full tanks, explained Master Sgt. Christopher Uriarte, 31st RQS pararescueman.

On the first day of positioning tanks, over 200 were placed strategically throughout the cave.

During the rescue, members of Team Kadena carried the children from chamber to chamber and then dove with them from the third chamber to the second chamber where they were handed off to the Australian team members who then handed them off to the Thai members.

“It was an amazing experience to have so many people, regardless of nationality or culture working together towards a common goal,” said Stephen Drakes, 31st RQS SERE specialist. “Obviously communication is the immediate barrier to any multi-national effort, and that was true during this rescue as well – we were able to overcome communication barriers by building solid relationships with the folks we worked with day-in and day-out; by the time we were pulling the kids out of the cave, we were operating as a cohesive team.”  

While almost everyone involved had a personal sense of pride in their contribution to the success of the life-saving mission, many also found professional value in it.

“What I took away from this mission was gratitude toward our leadership; because this mission was so high risk, I expected that our involvement – specifically the confined space diving – would be restricted,” Uriarte said, “But we kept our leadership up to speed on our decision making process and how we planned to mitigate risks, and they fully supported our decisions on how to execute at the tactical level.

Overcoming so many difficulties and barriers may have been an accomplishment experienced only by those directly involved, but as news of the last child being rescued spread throughout the media – making it a 100 percent successful rescue mission – the world sighed in relief too.

“For nearly 200 years, we have maintained friendly and productive relationships with Thailand – we are confident that will be the case long into the future,” said Capt. Jessica Tait, 353rd SOG Public Affairs chief. “The U.S. stands with our allies and partners during difficult times and we are committed to providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief throughout the world.”