DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. — Imagine a 5-year-old boy chasing grasshoppers at a camp site. He wanders too far. Darkness falls, and he is lost. A storm is brewing in the sky above, and the camping party turns into a search party.
When this scenario unfolded earlier this month, six U.S. Air Force Reserve pararescuemen and three combat rescue officers from the 306th Rescue Squadron dropped everything and caught a lift from the Arizona Army National Guard to go assist the search and recovery effort for Jerald Joseph Williams, who went missing in the Kaibab National Forest north of the Grand Canyon Aug. 6.
“We spent all night calling his name out,” said 2nd Lt. Ryan Gilbert, a 306th Rescue Squadron CRO. “Some of the volunteers were actually getting injured searching. It was raining, and the terrain was pretty rugged, so we were the only ones authorized to search at night. We have the night vision goggles and [other gear] and training necessary, so we were basically up all night, every night, looking for him.”
Gilbert is a formerly-enlisted pararescuemen with more than six combat deployments and 12 years of service. This experience as a PJ, he said, makes him a better leader to his enlisted team because he not only knows what their hands-on job is and what training and equipment they need to do it – he also has established credibility.
“That first day was long,” he said. “The guys had been awake for more than 24 hours and stayed up searching through the night. Since we were all ground-based, there was no crew rest; but all the guys were motivated and just wanted to push through. We knew that no matter how tired, cold or hungry we were, nothing we were going through could compare to what this little boy was going through. That is what energized us and kept us going.”
As the weekend wore on and he and his men continued the search, Gilbert said his thoughts often turned to his pregnant wife, Vanessa, and his two young boys at home. His family and other squadron family members had sent the crew off with food and water, texting them whatever open-source information they could find online as the story unfolded.
“We wouldn’t be able to be where we were without our awesome wives and support systems,” said the Sierra Vista, Ariz., native. “They understand why we are doing what we do and really are part of the rescue community.”
“This is part of what we signed up for, and I know what to expect by now,” said Vanessa, who maintains her own nursing career while holding down the fort at home when her husband leaves without much notice and for days on end. “When it’s a local rescue mission like this one, it pulls at any parent’s heart strings. You just want the best outcome.”
Late Monday afternoon, after four days of tireless, around-the-clock efforts from everyone involved, including about 1,000 volunteers covering more than 20 square miles, Jerome’s body was found about 20 feet off of Forest Service Road 240, nearly four miles from the camp site. He was outside of the search radius, having traveled further than could be expected for a person his age in terrain of that kind, and likely died of exposure the first night he went missing, according to the Coconino County Medical Examiner’s Office.
“It’s always tough to lose someone, whether it’s on the battlefield, or a search and rescue mission, or in the back of the helicopter,” said Gilbert. “But it really hits close to home when it’s a kid that age.”
“Our job is not to predict the outcome; our job is to go, regardless,” said Col. Harold Maxwell, 943rd Rescue Group commander. “If there’s even a faint chance of saving someone, it’s worth it. The outcome may not always be what we want, but our effort is always extraordinary.”