Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

February 8, 2013

Saving warriors

Moody opens up to National Geographic Channel

VALDOSTA — The National Geographic Channel has found a gem at Moody Air Force Base—the 38th Rescue Squadron, tasked with the gritty job of saving the lives of the injured in combat and moving them to safety.

This is no simple effort. The pararescuemen, or PJs, follow the orders of their Combat Rescue officers to locate an injured warrior in the field and fly out to them in Pave Hawk helicopters. They touch down near the wounded in hostile areas when able, but sometimes descend via rappel or parachute, and not always over land.

The pararescuemen use specialized training to move over enemy territory, stabilize and extricate victims, sometimes under fire. Air support from the Pave Hawks and A-10 fighter jets protect the soldiers as they move over mountains and through water to save victims.

Moody opened its doors to representatives from NatGeo and other media for a tour of the base Thursday, as well as rescue and flight demonstrations featuring the operations of the 38th. Charlie Parsons, Vice President of Global Development and Production, was there to thank the squadron for their cooperation in allowing NatGeo journalists to collect and tell the stories of these pararescuemen.

The journalists were embedded with the squadron near Kandahar, Afghanistan for four months, collecting film and information over the course of 130 missions in which 108 lives were saved. The effort will be aired in a six-part series called "Inside Combat Rescue," which airs Feb. 18 at 10 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel, but it premiered for the 38th Thursday night, projected on a screen inside their Fuels Barn on base.

The media demonstrations began at 8 a.m. with a training exercise at an outdoor rock climbing wall near the squadron. To simulate a canyon rescue, pararescuemen rappelled down the climbing wall to an old sedan that contained a dummy in the front seat, with the door locked.

The trainees were told the victim had a broken leg, and they reacted to extricate the victim from the vehicle. They broke out the windows and windshield with a specialized multi-use tool—a combination of a hammer, ice pick and crowbar—and used a manual Jaws of Life and SawZall to cut through metal and bend the canopy of the car over itself.

The representatives from NatGeo were allowed to participate to feel the heft of the equipment. The job wasn't as easy as the rescuers made it look.

Once the canopy was folded back like a flattened aluminum can, the rescuers removed the victim with care and carried him back to their point of entry. One rescuer sent up a rucksack clipped to the rope and ascended the rope with climbing equipment, while the other remained below to fit the victim with a webbing harness.

Strapped in tandem, both the victim and the rescuer were hauled up the face of the rock wall using a 3:1 pulley system. The training scenario ended when both the victim and the rescuer were safely at the top.

Following the training demonstration, the media group was led to a static display at the Fuels Barn, Building 646. The squadron's medical, tactical and combat equipment—including an inflatable Zodiac boat—was laid out on a few tables inside the barn. Outside, a Pave Hawk, an HC-130 and an A-10 stood on display.

In operations, the pararescuemen explained, the Pave Hawk is used as the primary mover for personnel, while the HC-130 serves as an additional transport and refueling plane for the helicopters. The A-10s provide ground and air protection for the other birds and the rescue operation on the ground.

The operations of the 38th aren't limited to overseas combat situations. The squadron was tasked with the search and recovery effort to find James Eunice, the teenager who went missing for 16 days during a boating and duck hunting trip at Ocean Pond, according to Capt. Seth Davis.

The squadron ran the search, leading other police and emergency responders. During the search for a period of five or six days, the team searched for Eunice around the clock, Davis said. The squadron were also sent to New Orleans to provide rescue support for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

After lunch, the guests were taken by base transport buses to the Grand Bay Range for a combat search and rescue

demonstration. A-10s flew in and, using live ammunition, fired upon staged targets to show initial ground strike tactics. The pararescuemen then flew in via helicopter and landed on the range to simulate an extraction.

Once the simulation was complete, the rescuers boarded the Pave Hawk once again and took off. In a final demonstration, the HC-130 did a fly-by with a helicopter following close behind to simulate an air refueling.

A long umbilicus with a parachute ring at the tip, the refueling hose, hung from each wing of the HC-130. The Pave Hawks must make precise contact in the center of the ring with a long boom that extends from the front of the helicopter for the refuel to be successful. With the larger plane traveling around its slowest speed, and the helicopter traveling at nearly its fastest, the precision maneuver is very difficult.

After the demonstration, the guests were given a driving tour of the base. Media departed at around 3:30 p.m., and the premier was delivered at 7 p.m.

"We want to take our viewers into somewhere where they'll never go. In this instance, it took a while to get permission," Parsons said about the project. "The former President of National Geographic Television, Maryanne Culpepper, her son is PJ. So that's how we got the idea. I came out today because I wanted to meet the guys we've been watching on tape for months, and show our support."

Parsons was very inquisitive and interested in the operations Thursday. He and his team shook hands and thanked as many members of the 38th as they could, asked questions and shared information and jokes as friends.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Blankenship shared his experience in the field and what it was like to work with NatGeo crews. His sole responsibility on deployment is to rescue the victims, and while the job is scary and stressful at times, he focuses in on his job and lets little distract him, he said.

To date, nothing has gone wrong, he said, because he is still here.

Blankenship, as well as other pararescuemen, said working with NatGeo was strange at first, but once they adjusted to having camera and sound gear as part of their daily equipment, the journalists stayed out of their way.

"It only took a week or so before they were invisible to us," Blankenship said.

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