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PJs recall recent rescue mission

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Angelique Perez
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs
If jumping out of a perfectly good airplane into the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the middle of the night to help out complete strangers isn't your idea of a rush, then maybe a career as a pararescueman isn't for you. That's exactly what a team of PJs from the 31st Rescue Squadron and the 320th Special Tactics Squadron did Sept. 25 when they responded to a real world rescue mission to aid two injured civilian mariners.

The two mariners were injured in an accident on board a Panamanian freighter about 750 miles north of Saipan. The men required immediate medical care, care that could not be delivered in time by anyone but Air Force Pararescuemen from Kadena. Within hours of the U.S. Coast Guard receiving the initial request for aid, members of the 31st Rescue Squadron, the 320th Special Tactics Squadron and 1st Special Operations Squadron were making plans for the rescue operation.

Because of the distance from Kadena to the freighter - about 1,200 miles - and the fact they would be flying aboard a 1st SOS MC-130, the rescue team determined there was only one way to proceed. The PJs would perform a freefall jump out of the back of the aircraft from 3,500 feet into the pitch black night. With them, they would bring inflatable zodiac boats with engines, oxygen to inflate the boats as well as medical gear and supplies. Additional resupply bundles were also packed with oxygen and fluids, medical equipment, and communications equipment.

Staff Sgt. Ivan Eggel, one of the six pararescuemen who deployed on the mission, said the team had a lot of work to do before even stepping onto the aircraft.

"I knew I was going to be a medic so I started prepping med gear and supplies," said Sergeant Eggel. "We had so many things to prep -- parachutes, resupply bundles; [we had to] pull all of the gear, find out the patient's injuries, talk to the doctor to find out what kind of med gear we should bring in addition to our standard med ruck, and just worked it from there."

According to Tech. Sgt Jeffrey Hedglin, a PJ from the 31st RQS and a member of the rescue team, last minute preparations are just the nature of the business.

"It's almost impossible to have already prepped bundles because you can't 'what if' any rescue or medical situation you get thrown into, so you're always building things last minute," said Sergeant Hedglin. "We're taught to just make it happen even if we don't always have the exact gear we need."

Seven hours from the time of notification, the MC-130 was wheels up, and the team was on its way south. The Airmen from the 18th Wing and the 353rd Special Operations Group had only one thing on their minds - making it to the ship in time to provide lifesaving aid. It helped that the team members weren't strangers to each other.

"We've got good working relationships, common interests and common capabilities," said Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Rich, a PJ from the 31st RQS and the rescue team leader for the mission. "But the only way to pull together a joint team like that is to develop those personal and professional relationships ahead of time. We knew something like this might happen so we've been fostering that relationship, doing jumps with each other, and doing joint training."

As the team pressed toward their objective, they received medical updates on the two patients. One had a severe head injury and was considered to be the most critical patient; the other had a piece of pipe going through his back below his kidneys. The rescue team would have its work cut out for it when it reached the injured men, but the first task at hand was safely getting the team and all its gear into the water below.

"We knew it was going to be a night jump, which increases the risk," said Sergeant Rich, but it's something that we train for, something that some people go their entire career without having the opportunity to use their skills.

It's kind of ironic," he continued. "You don't ever want somebody to be hurt or put in those situations but if someone is, you want to be the one that's there to help them."

The zodiacs and the gear were first out the door followed by two three-man teams. Guided only by the lights of the freighter in the darkness, the PJs parachuted safely into the Pacific Ocean and made their way to the boats.

"It's almost like a surreal moment when you're looking out there going, 'alright, this is what you've trained for, and this is what you're ready to do at a moment's notice'," said Sergeant Rich. "That's what we strive for; it's not so much the personal risk for us, it's the acceptable risk to go out there and save somebody's life."

After assessing that everyone had landed safely, the teams inflated the boats, gathered their gear and made their way to the freighter where they immediately began providing medical care to the injured mariners. The teams alternated between the patients while hydrating and feeding themselves for the next 32 hours as the freighter made its way toward Guam.

While both patients had serious injuries, it was the one with the severe head injury that really concerned the Airmen and required the most attention.

"Medically, it was very challenging and we did pull everything out, all the stops," said Sergeant Rich. "Every bit of knowledge that I had from my 20-some odd years of experience went in to helping keep this patient alive for those 30 hours."

Once the freighter was within 50 nautical miles of Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, U.S. Navy medical evacuation helicopters hoisted the patients along with the PJ teams off the deck and headed to the U.S. Naval hospital in Guam.

As the evacuation from the ship began, the critically injured man went into cardiac arrest. The PJ's performed CPR on the man for more than an hour and kept him alive until they were able to hand him off to the hospital. Despite their fight to save his life, the man's injuries were too severe, and he died about 45 minutes after arriving at the hospital. The other mariner was expected to make a full recovery from his injuries.

"It was long, about 36 hours; we were pulling two hour shifts on the patients," said Sergeant Eggel. "Handing him off after doing CPR on him constantly for the last hour, it was kind of heartbreaking to see all the care you put into him, just to see him crash at the end. It was hard."

A weary team returned to Kadena the evening of Sept. 27 where it was welcomed by fellow Airmen and family members. While the PJs were discouraged by the loss of the critically injured patient, they were proud to have been a part of such an extraordinary operation. They also recognized that many others played a role behind the scenes - the mission planners, the maintenance crews who got the aircraft ready to fly, the members of the 909th Air Refueling Squadron who refueled the MC-130 during the mission, the flight doctors who remained in constant contact with the pararescue team and many others.

"The biggest thing is -- for us -- this is what we train to do," said Sergeant Rich. "I feel very privileged and honored that I had the opportunity to use those skills to help save someone's life."