Night Mission: Flying With an Elite Search and Rescue Team in Afghanistan

A routine training run turns into an emergency nighttime medical evacuation.

A forward base in Orgun-E, Afghanistan.

A forward base in Orgun-E, Afghanistan.

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ORGUN-E, AFGHANISTAN—A full moon above the jagged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, still snowcapped well into the month of May, generally means less business for the U.S. Combat Search and Rescue teams here. In clear, bright weather, the other services can do their own rescuing. When the conditions aren't ideal, though, they call for help from the 210th Rescue Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard.

On one recent night, during what was planned as a training flight, the rescue unit received an urgent call in midair. At a small U.S. Army hospital outpost just 10 miles from the Pakistan border, three Afghan national policemen had been hit by a roadside bomb and then ambushed with small arms fire. The squadron members learned that one ANP colonel would most likely be missing a leg by the time they arrived.

The helicopter pilots set the coordinates and began picking their way through passes in the jagged 12,000-foot-high mountains. With night-vision technology, the moon appeared as bright as the sun, lighting up small mud houses that seemed cut into the mountains as the helicopter cast moon shadows on the valleys.

The other half of this team are the pararescuers of Moody Air Force Base, Ga., attached to the 210th Rescue Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard, who are both paramedics and combat operators trained to perform rescues under fire. Pararescuers—known as PJs—are noted for the perils of their work: Of the 22 Air Force Crosses—the service's second-highest honor for heroism—that have gone to enlisted men, 12 have gone to PJs for missions to find and recover downed pilots.

But these days in Afghanistan, they are just as likely to be dispatched to perform the medical evacuation of U.S. troops caught in a firefight and wounded. They are sometimes called on to evacuate civilian casualties.

They have come to the aid of foreign troops as well. Staff Sgt. Kyle Minshew of Daytona Beach, Fla., recalls the 2006 rescue of a unit of British soldiers who found themselves trapped in a minefield. As his helicopter hovered above, preparing to use hoists and baskets to extricate the soldiers, Minshew leaned out and looked down at the dirt and dust kicked up by the blades. "You could see all of the mines," he says—and the grievous injuries of the British troops who had lost life and limb.

For these reasons and more, training for pararescuers is famously intense. They learn ropes, knots, high angle climbing, and how to negotiate confined spaces like caves with little oxygen. 1st Lt. Brock Roden of Asheville, N.C., estimates that during PJ training, the recruits spend roughly an hour a day in exercises that involve holding their breath underwater.

They are often underwater, in fact, until they pass out—"getting touched by the wiz," the PJs here call it, a reference to a fellow PJ who passed out next to a pool drain painted with a wizard. When this happens, the unconscious man is rescued by fellow PJs, then promptly thrown back into the water to hold his breath some more. Such training is less about water skills than it is a "gut check" to make sure they won't quit, the PJs say.

Those on the job here didn't quit. Now, they spend days in their tactical operations center, where they have built their own mini stadium-seating theater, with one row of three plush brown Barcaloungers sitting on a raised platform right behind the other. Above, they have built a low plywood roof and hung strings of white twinkle lights. The rest of the space is occupied by their equipment—several drawers full of glow sticks, scalpels, and chest tubes. There are shelves of free-fall and static-line parachutes, ropes, and carabiners. Parked outside are a Zodiac inflatable boat and a couple of six-wheel all-terrain vehicles that PJs could drop into territory with a parachute if needed for mobility. "I don't think we'll ever need them," said Roden. In the meantime, they don helmets and reflective belts and use the ATVs to drive to meals at the chow hall.

The experience and the equipment helped them this one evening as well. The small Army outpost hospital at Orgun—elevation 7,460 feet—had been going nonstop all day. The morning began with three U.S. troops injured in an IED blast, one with severe wounds over 90 percent of his body, and the day ended with this latest attack. The hospital is busier than at this time last year, said Lt. Leonard Marvin, who has been at the outpost for 13 months.