Afghan Medevacs Run to Gunfire, Explosions to Rescue Injured Comrades

Local forces have an uphill climb to replace Pararescue, Dustoff guardians.

An HH-60 Pavehawk support helicopter leaves Bagram Air Base on a mission for the 10th Mountain Dustoff Squadron. (Paul Shinkman for USN&WR)

A UH-60 Black Hawk support helicopter leaves Bagram Air Base on a mission for the 10th Mountain Dustoff Squadron.

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In Afghanistan they share the duties of combat medevacs with Dustoff, with a few differences.

"We shoot back," says Air Force Lt. Col. Brad Dow, pararescue commander of the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron.

The gear used by Pararescue pilot Chris Obranovich includes a sidearm.

Pararescumen Staff Sgt. Taras Ivaniuk prepares the interior of his helicopter for its next mission.

Dustoff helicopters are stripped of their usual medical, oxygen and lighting equipment to accommodate for the hotter, thinner air high up in the Afghan mountains. They can thus fly slightly higher than the PJs' HH-60s, but only because there are some things pararescue won't do without.

Every one of their Pavehawks is decorated with a telltale moustache on the nose, an homage to their combat callsign "PEDRO." They also all have twin .50 caliber machine guns on both sides in addition to the arsenals each operator carries with him on board.

The telltale nose of a Pararescue "PEDRO" helicopter.

An ammunition belt feeds into one of the two .50 caliber machine guns mounted to each side of the Pararescue helicopter.

But there is less need for that in this current war, versus the 10 missions per day they encountered at the height of the surge. PJs have only activated for these kinetic missions around Bagram four times since last fall, Dow says. They have had roughly 150 wounded-in-action missions and transferred 12 troops who were killed.

"Afghanistan is almost exclusively not special tactics," says Air Force Capt. William Chase, the combat rescue officer for the unit on duty the day he spoke with U.S News. PJs have traded the time they would usually spend stalking through enemy territory to find a comrade for instead honing their medical skills.

The frequency of work in Afghanistan has allowed the unit a chance to work on the combat trauma training that has proven critical in fighting the wounds that have become ubiquitous in this war, largely from deadly improvised explosive devices.

"But it's not a complete snapshot of what we're doing," Chase says. Pararescue has maintained a large contingent off the Horn of Africa, conducting its own missions and training local doctors and veterinarians.

They participated in the 2009 Airbus 310 crash into the Indian Ocean miles off the Comoros Islands and helped rescue the 14-year-old girl who survived.

That Pararescue can cover this large swath of the world and adapt to the mission in Afghanistan helps to demonstrate the kind of men who can withstand the years of training necessary to join the units. Its history has been one of taking on new challenges.

This includes the ability to leap from an airplane with a jetski and successfully parachute into the open ocean.

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That mission stems from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, Chase explains. A review board discovered the astronauts in the jettisoned capsule survived the initial explosion and were still alive as it fell into the sea.

Pararescue then set up procedures to be based in France or Spain during every launch, and packed the necessary equipment to follow a disaster into the ocean and recover any survivors.

'WHEN I HAVE YOUR WOUNDED'

In this war, helping the wounded includes treating the enemy. U.S. News witnessed the transportation of a captured Taliban fighter who sought medical attention for what he believed might be kidney stones.

"A person is a person," says Army Sgt. Julia Bringloe, standing on the tarmac outside the Dustoff hangar with the telltale radio close to her side.

Bringloe received the Distinguished Flying Cross last year for repeatedly dropping into heavy fire on her helicopter's winch and cable to rescue pinned-down troops. She disregarded her fractured leg to rescue an Afghan translator among the fray.

She humbly points to the crew she worked on the mission and shirks any claims of individual heroism.

"The duty of a medevac is to treat any patient," she says.

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  • Correction 08/09/2013: A previous version of this story misidentified the Army’s rescue helicopter. It is the UH-60 Black Hawk and uses M-240 machine guns. The story also misidentified Capt. Travis Bonney and Sgt. Julia Bringloe. They serve in the Army.