USAF rescue squadrons participate in a war week exercise

VIDEO: The US Air Force (USAF) 18th Wing, based at Kadena Air Base, Japan, reports on a recent training exercise held to practise combat search and rescue skills

The US Air Force (USAF) 18th Wing, based at Kadena Air Base, Japan, reports on a recent training exercise held to practise combat search and rescue skills (VIDEO available below)

“Hey, man, are you ok? What happened? Do you remember anything?” shouted the pararescuman. “Where are you from?” he asked, while he looked over a victim, freshly pulled from the mock wreckage of a downed aircraft. Air beats of HH-60G Pave Hawks from the USAF 33rd Rescue Squadron circled overhead the pararescumen of the 31st Rescue Squadron as they hurriedly, and under simulated fire, cared for their patients while securing the area and looked for a way to get themselves and their patients out of harm's way.

Members of the 31st and 33rd Rescue Squadrons teamed with support from around Kadena Air Base to conduct a war week exercise from 6 to 8 February. The war week included a combination of combat and rescue scenarios to test and train members of Kadena’s two rescue squadrons, and was held at ‘combat town’, a mock village specifically built for training on Camp Hansen.

The scenarios during this war week were put together from real situations that teams in the field have experienced. Master Sgt Eric Baugh, 31st Rescue Squadron NCO in charge of weapons and tactics, was in the lead in making the exercise come to life. “We set up scenarios based on missions that we have seen in Afghanistan,” Baugh said. “We take lessons learned from our unit or another unit’s experience, develop these scenarios and give it to the guys for training.”

The more true-to-life the training, the more prepared the airmen will be when they have to react to the real thing. “With scenario-based training, the goal is to keep it as real as possible [and] let it play out as naturally as possible,” said Tech. Sgt Douglas Gassner, a 31st Rescue Squadron survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) specialist, and one of the exercise’s lead planners.

To assist with the realism, several squadrons on Kadena offered up airmen to lend a hand. The volunteers played roles ranging from villagers and opposing forces to injured personnel.

Airman 1st Class Todd Holly, 18th Wing Public Affairs broadcaster, had the rare opportunity to assist in the training exercise as an injured aircrew member. After being made up to appear wounded, Holly and another volunteer climbed into an overturned car that was placed on the roof of one of combat town’s buildings. The scene was set to simulate an aircraft crash.

“Out of nowhere we heard the helicopter and felt the wicked wind rocking the car. Within moments, the whole car vibrated as a saw tore its way into the floor of the trunk,” Holly said. “They reassured us by telling us we were going to be going home. I was very impressed at how calm and confident they were. I never saw them break their focus.”

Having real people playing victims helped the teams react as they would with casualties in the field. With sweat drenching his face and the rest of his team securing the area as simulated explosions and gunfire filled the air, Staff Sgt Elmer Quijada, 123rd Special Tactics Squadron pararescuman, rendered medical care on the gritty floor of a cinderblock building during another scenario. “It is really intense. You want to do everything right at that moment, but you are also focused on what is going on around you,” said Quijada, a Kentucky Air National Guardsman.

Setting up the scenes with as much realism as possible has proved to be invaluable to the teams. “We really appreciate getting help on the ground,” Baugh said. “We train to what we are going to experience down-range. It turns into a really positive experience for us because we get to learn, and for the [volunteers] because they get to do something that is kind of exciting.”

Training with those whom they are preparing to deploy with has also been helpful for members of both squadrons. “This training has helped me be able to more effectively communicate with my guys and the aircrew, and it has shown me how we work together,” said Staff Sgt George Reed, 31st Rescue Squadron pararescuman. “Our team is definitely more cohesive because of the training this week.”

The aircrews benefited from the training as well. “[The] exercise was a great experience,” said Capt. Peter Sweeny, 33rd Rescue Squadron HH-60G pilot. “Especially being able to see the aircrew and ground teams start to gel into a cohesive team.”

Once the war week exercise scenario was over, the air was still and the dust from the rotor wash had settled on everything in its path, the teams had an opportunity to review their performances. “To learn from other people’s missions or from other people’s mistakes is a huge advantage,” Gassner said. “We can get our own lessons learned from this, and the guys can gain valuable experience that they can take down-range, and hopefully it will save their life and lives of other people.”

The training has a positive effect on the mission and on the personnel involved. “It is one of those missions that make you feel good,” Gassner said. “You are saving lives, getting someone who is wounded back home.”

Images: (top) USAF members from the 31st and 33rd Rescue Squadrons work to medically evacuate victims of a simulated aircraft crash / (above) USAF Staff Sgt Elmer Quijada is hoisted into a 33rd Rescue Squadron HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter along with a simulated casualty / USAF / Senior Airman Maeson L. Elleman