PORTLAND AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ore. --
The 304th Rescue Squadron, a geographically separated unit of the 920th Rescue Wing, participated in the successful rescue of a 16-year-old male who was missing for more than 30 hours near Mt. St. Helens.
On Sept. 28, the 304th Rescue Squadron deployed a 12-person technical search-and-rescue team to support Cowlitz County Sheriff’s office to find the missing teen at Hummocks Trailhead.
The teen had been hiking with his mother and 13-year-old sister during the afternoon on Sept. 27 when he left to go to the bathroom and didn't return.
The 304th RQS received mission notification at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 28 and the team convened at base to perform mission planning and gear preparation. Within 75 minutes of notification the rescue professionals departed for Hummocks Trailhead.
For Senior Airman Joseph, Pararescue (PJ) specialist, 304th RQS, this was his very first mission after finishing technical training this summer.
The Senior Airman was performing his early morning workout when the word came down that there was a potential real-world rescue.
“We pulled away from the gym and started prepping our gear,” he said. .
When they arrived at the location where the teen was last seen, the current search and rescue volunteers had already covered the two mile trail loop the teen and his family were walking.
The reason the 304th RQS was called in was to cover the “heinous terrain.”
“The middle section is not recommend for travel, not because of it’s steep and formidable terrain but the ponds and marshes that have three feet of muck under two to five feet of water,” said Joseph. “People have been stuck there for days unable to get out.”
The area is known for the Mt. St. Helens eruption on May 18, 1980, the most destructive eruption in modern US history, killing 57 people. The 40-year-old hills of volcanic rock and ash created by this eruption required steady and sure footing.
“It was a lot of mileage on the boots, we were pushing out across the terrain with lots of ups and downs,” the PJ said.
The Cowlitz County Sheriff’s office was organizing and controlling the search and rescue efforts and the 304th RQS was there to support and enhance search efforts.
“I was really impressed with all the rescue organizations and volunteers,” said Joseph. “I thought the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s did a great job organizing and coordinated the search efforts. For me, it was a good first mission that opened up a lot of opportunities for integrative experiences with other official search and rescue groups.”
Maj. Phil, Combat Rescue Officer, 304th RQS, was the liaison officer coordinating search efforts with the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s office and his team of 11 Pararescue (PJ) specialists.
Regarding the equipment, the PJ’s brought radios, satellite phones, technical rescue rope kits, roll-up litters and overnight gear including tents and camp stoves. Additionally, they brought an SXV off-road vehicle and an ATV but the terrain didn’t allow for mounted searches.
“We are supporting the Sheriff’s department and that working relationship is very key to our successful rescues,” said Maj. Phil. “Fortunately we also have a great relationship with the other local Sherriff’s department and the civilian search and rescue organizations at Mt. Hood.”
“Every rescue is different, based on who’s lost, who’s injured, the terrain, the weather; every rescue is unique,” he said. “The only thing that’s the same is the equipment, which helps us get out the door quickly.”
After spending the day searching for the lost boy the 12-person team departed the search area at sunset and returned back to base.
Col. Niul, 304th RQS commander, said “I am very proud of my military professionals and how quickly they were able to respond to the call for assistance.”
Fortunately, a canine unit was able to locate the 16-year-old at 9:45 pm that same day. The boy was found up in a tree with minor injuries and was able to walk out under his own strength.
According to the Sheriff’s Office Facebook post, the teen lost his footing at the edge of a hilltop and fell down the hill. An animal startled him and he ran into a bush, where he remained for some time before climbing the tree.
The 304th trains, equips, and deploys Combat Rescue Officers, Pararescuemen, and support personnel worldwide in the interest of U.S. national security. The 304 RQS is part of the 943rd Rescue Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona and the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick AFB, Florida.
The 920th RQW is the only wing in the Air Force Reserve Command that trains and equips its Airmen who carry out its mission, to search for, locate and recover U.S. Armed Forces personnel during military operations. Air Force rescue is the only DoD entity specifically organized, trained and equipped to conduct personnel recovery operations into hostile or denied areas as a primary mission.
*Editor’s Note: Last names have been omitted for operational security.