PATRICK AFB, Florida -- Jason Hughes had a promising sales job in Baltimore when he did a complete about-face at age 21 and decided to join the Air Force as a "Guardian Angel."
"I joined because I wanted to do something more challenging with my life," said the 25-year-old pararescueman who wears the rank of Senior Airman with the 943rd Rescue Group. "I wanted something to hang my hat on ... something that was extremely difficult ... and something that would make a difference. I found that in my role as a PJ."
The primary function of pararescue jumpers - PJs, for short - such as SrA Hughes is to serve as a personnel recovery specialist with emergency medical capabilities in humanitarian and combat environments. They deploy into restricted environments using air-land-sea tactics with a mission to authenticate, extract, treat, stabilize and evacuate injured people. The PJ motto, "That Others May Live," reaffirms their commitment to saving lives.
It's not an easy job.
After joining the Reserve, Hughes would spend the 2.5 years in technical school. He started training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where he completed the pararescue indoctrination course. Of the 124 Airman who started the course, only 25 made it to the end, and of those 25, and of those, only five finished without injury or other setbacks.
From there, the young Airman traveled to Florida, where he completed dive school, airborne training, freefall training, survival training and paramedic training. By July 2013, he was back with his home unit, the 306th Rescue Squadron (RQS), to complete his next level of training.
"The tech school training placed incredible physical and psychological demands on my body," he said. "Every single day included running, calisthenics and water training. And every day, the only thing you knew was that the next day was going to be even harder. It takes a great deal of mental strength to go on."
Hughes said the most difficult training took place during the PJ apprentice course, also known as "PJU," when the rescuers went in after a simulated convoy and were hoisted into an area that was hit.
"We went in, pulled people out, and ended up having to hike with them uphill, all while taking [simulated] small arms and automatic gunfire," he recalled. "The hike was only one mile, but felt like 10 because we had only a few PJs and limited gear. The exercise was designed to represent the worst-case scenario. When it was all over, I was completely beaten and worn down."
Currently, SrA Hughes continues on-the-job training with the 306th. He expects to deploy within the next year, putting gall his rescue skills to the ultimate test. "So far it's incredibly rewarding, and the best is yet to come."
Crew Members Train Together for Years
Hughes' tenacity and vision aptly represent the mission of the 943rd Rescue Group, based at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz.
"The 943rd Rescue Group is the only Reserve combat search and rescue unit in the AFR; our parent unit is the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick AFB in Florida," said Master Sgt. Luke Johnson, a public affairs technician assigned to the group. He described the unit as "a mini-wing."
Comprised of approximately 500 Airmen, the group's mission is to perform day and night combat rescue missions, provide search and rescue support of civilians when directed by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, and provide humanitarian and disaster relief operations when requested by official channels in the U.S. Government. Subordinate units include the 943rd Maintenance Squadron, the 943rd Aerospace Medicine Squadron, the 306th Rescue Squadron (pararescue) , the 305th Rescue Squadron (pilots, flight engineers, gunners), the 304th Rescue Squadron (pararescue in Portland, Ore.), and 943rd Operations Support Flight (intelligence) and 943rd Mission Support Flight (administration and communications).
"What makes us unique is the continuity within the group," said Johnson, explaining how the Reserve allows servicemembers to train together for many years, further enhancing the integrity of the rescue team. "We've got many members who have been here for years and years, and they know how to quickly come together as a team to accomplish the mission, even when faced with limited resources."
The unit has an impressive track record dating back to 1958, when the 305th was established at Selfridge AFB, Mich., with a search and rescue mission. Throughout the next 50 years, it would change aircraft, unit names, and home base locations several times, but the Airmen always sustained the rescue mission. In 1994, the 305th Rescue Squadron deployed three aircraft and 95 Reservists to Iraq in support of Operation Provide Comfort II.
On May 19, 1994, the 305th was credited with its first save after the crew completed a daring night rescue using night vision goggles and Stokes litter to hoist an injured Soldier surrounded by 60-foot trees from a 60-degree mountain slope. During the deployment, the unit would complete 315 combat sorties.
Capt. Brough McDonald flies HH-60G Pave Hawk Helicopters for the unit. Known as "Shwag" around the 305th Rescue Squadron, the instructor pilot serves as chief of weapons and tactics. He joined the unit in 2005, switching over from the Air National Guard. As a civilian, he works for the Department of Homeland Security.
"I was initially attracted to the squadron because I have a passion for flying," recalls McDonald, who deployed three times to Afghanistan since joining the unit. "I had met several rescue pilots through my civilian job and thought this sounded like a really interesting military career."
To keep current, the pilot typically flies once a week, not counting his unit training assembly weekends. He also spends time on the non-drill weekends doing paperwork, write-ups and other administrative work. And there are always flying missions.
"As an instructor pilot, the scheduling shop tells me what mission I am tasked with," he explains. "This can be continuation training or combat mission-ready training. It could be flying with a student on a tactical mission, or air-to-air refueling or weapons training. I can fill the role as a co-pilot or aircraft commander."
An aircrew member's job, he said, is to "sit in alert and be ready to rescue isolated personnel."
"We are problem solvers, and we have to fight our way in to dangerous situations to save people," he said. "The very nature of our mission puts us on the ragged edge of danger. We could be facing challenges of weather, geography and distance ... and especially the enemy. Simply put, we find [people], support them on the ground, and bring them home."
The Air Force rescue community has 10 operational squadrons -- five active duty, three in the guard, and two in the Reserve -- McDonald said, that often deploy together. "It's important we stay engaged with the active duty," he said. "If you don't stay plugged in, you can quickly get excluded."
Rescue crews typically respond as a pair of helicopter crews working together. A 943rd Pave Hawk crew is comprised of two pilots, two mission aviation specialists or gunners, two PJs and a combat rescue officer on one helicopter, and three PJs on the other.
Risking Everything to Save One Life
Master Sgt. Anthony (Tony) Jimenez serves as a special mission aviator (SMA) instructor with the 943rd. As a "gunner," the Reservist, who goes under the call sign "Vato," was attracted to the unit after 10 years of active duty combat rescue training. The aerial gunner career field recently merged with the flight engineer field, creating special mission aviators. Like the other members of the crew, SMAs have a complex job.
"In one role, we are the systems expert for the aircraft and are in charge of pre- and post-flight checks to ensure the aircraft is in working order," said the Air Reserve Technician (ART). "During flights, we assist pilots with emergency checklists. The other portion of our job is tactical. We 'man' the weapons on the aircraft, including a mini-gun and .50-caliber machine gun. We fire the weapons and repair them in flight."
Jimenez said the gunner on the right side of the aircraft typically serves as "the systems guy with the weapon," while the specialist on the left is the weapons expert in charge of communicating with the rescue team on the ground, letting them know what to expect next.
During his military career, Jimenez has deployed five times to locations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Currently, he's training 943rd Airmen in preparation for deployment to the Horn of Africa. He said the most significant part of the rescue mission is risking everything to save one life.
"I've picked up children who have been shot in Afghanistan, rescued teenagers who were burn victims after being set on fire, and picked up people who were bleeding out," he said. "We picked up a 5-year-old who was shot in the stomach with her village elder, and lots of people with gunshot wounds. But the most moving is picking-up up a HERO" -- a servicemember who died serving.
In total, the gunner has flown on more than 60 rescue missions.
"It puts a strain on your psyche," said Jimenez. "You need a strong family structure and learn to rely on your squadron brothers who are going through the same thing after you've seen children shot and servicemembers with missing limbs."
Sergeant Johnson contends the balance of full-time ARTs like Jimenez and Active Guard Reservists, coupled with part-time traditional Reservists makes the wing a powerful player in the rescue business.
"Based upon my experience here at the group, it takes more than one weekend a month and two weeks a year to become fully proficient at the [combat search and rescue] mission," he said. "The 943rd is also lucky that Reservists bring their civilian experiences to the team, adding that extra dynamic that you can't find on active duty."
Most of the group's Airmen agree. Tech. Sgt. Mark Quinn joined the 306th Rescue Squadron after serving 10 years on active duty in the Air Force. As a survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialist with the 306th Rescue Squadron, he trains supports personnel recovery as part of the Guardian Angel weapons system and develops tactics, techniques and procedures for PJs and aircrew. He said he enjoys being part of the Reserve for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of the strong team mentality.
"In the Reserve, you get to pick your own team, create a hiring process for that team, and build that team with integrity as the core," Quinn explained. "The team grows and learns together, growing in camaraderie and cohesion. I found that here with the 943rd."
(Permission was granted to run this story on the 10th Air Force Web site by the Reserve Officer's Association. No federal endorsement is intended with this post.)