From the Craycroft gate on D-M, it’s approximately 138 miles to our destination at Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary Field for the July 25 combat search and rescue training mission for pararescuemen from multiple rescue squadrons and rescue groups on D-M.
As we arrive at Gila Bend and take the dirt road to our final destination, we’re forced to stop. Up ahead in the distance, aircraft are practicing bombing runs. We sit and watch the dirt-filled mushroom clouds and wait for the explosions and the trembling shockwave that follows shortly after. We’re finally given the green light to continue on.
The training mission calls for an aircraft to be shot down. Two survivors need to be evacuated from hostile territory. To make matters worse, they both have injuries. One survivor has an injured elbow, while the other has a broken ankle and femur.
Opposing forces were also present during the scenario to add another layer of realism.
“These missions, which are held monthly, are as accurate as we can get to the missions performed overseas,” said Staff Sgt. Andy Pena, 563rd Operational Support Squadron aerial gunner. “Of course, there are going to be limitations to what we can do. We have to adhere to things like range time and air space. But overall, they’re very true to life.”
When it comes to rescuing military members from combat zones, minutes and seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Pararescuemen need to be in the air as quickly as possible.
“For personnel recovery, we can be out the door and ready to go in seven minutes,” said Capt. John Sutter*, combat rescue officer. “For something like the retrieval of equipment, we can take more time and plan things out better.”
During a rescue mission, anything can happen. If PJs get into a firefight and are running low on ammunition, they’re going to need to get more in a hurry.
“To help us with our missions, we can use premade packs that can have everything from medical supplies to ammunition,” Sutter* said. “Each one has a designator from alpha to echo, and we can call them in when we’re on an operation if the need arises. These options are great because you can never plan a mission to 100 percent.”
When we reached our final destination, we split into two groups, the OPFOR formed one group; while the survivors, an independent duty medical technician, and a survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialist who were tasked with evaluating the pararescuemen are in another.
While the group of survivors scouts out an adequate spot for the extraction, the OPFOR ready their blank-filled M4s and visiting Air Force Academy cadets get rubber dummy M4s and a rubber rocket propelled grenade launcher.
We break off into our respective groups and sat and sit and wait.
After a little while, one of the satellite phones we have beeps to life. We received a new message asking about the number of OPFOR and the weapons they have. One of the survivors sends a reply and the radio goes silent.
The distant thump from the HH-60 Pave Hawk rotor blades breaks the stillness. Two helicopters appear from behind the mountains. As they fly closer, the SERE specialist deploys a smoke canister, signaling the PJs onboard of the survivor’s position.
Before landing, the Pave Hawks fly overhead in an oval shape pattern. They’re scanning for targets. In this pattern, they can continuously fire on incoming threats. An enemy vehicle is spotted and dealt with swiftly.
The Pave Hawks land and the PJs rush out with their rifles raised to assess the condition of the wounded and begin medical care. As they do, they’re exposed. Three of their team-mates provide constant watch of the surroundings, ready to engage the opposition.
With the Tucson sun fading fast over Gila Bend and our allowed time on the range quickly coming to a close, the PJs load the injured onto the helicopters and extract them to safety.
Although it was a successful mission, there was room for improvement. Tactics or procedures they could have been better with or done differently will be brought up in the debriefing. But this is why they have these training missions every month. It helps everyone become more proficient at their job, so when a real-world mission arises, it will go off without a hitch.
*Some of the names of those in-volved have been changed.