ARLINGTON, Va. - When many people think of special operations forces, the first to come to mind include Navy SEALs, Marine Corps Reconnaissance Forces, or Army Rangers.
"Air Force? No," said Chief Master Sgt. Eric Degner, the Air National Guard's pararescue career field functional manager. "Most people don't even realize that the Air Force in general has any kind of special operations type jobs."
But pararescue jumpers, or PJs, are just one of a handful of special operations career fields within the Air Force and Air National Guard, providing personnel recovery operations, as well as search and rescue.
PJs often operate in remote and hostile environments when recovering downed Service men and women, requiring a number of skills ranging from emergency trauma care, marksmanship, rappelling, mountaineering, scuba diving, and skydiving.
In the Air Guard, many PJs are also paramedics, firefighters and police officers in a civilian capacity outside of their pararescue roles, Degner said.
"These roles tie back very well with what pararescue does and ... it adds a lot more credibility to not only the Guard, but pararescue in general," he said.
"When we go to the battleground, we've got guys who are seeing the same things they normally do [day-to-day]," he said, adding that those in the active component pararescue community may not always have that level of experience.
It is that level of experience that makes Air Guard PJs an invaluable part of the total Air Force pararescue community, especially when considering the career longevity of many Air Guard members, who often stay in for 20 or 30 years.
"We're proud that the Guard has the experience," he said, "and if you ask most of the active duty guys, or the older guys who have seen it, they recognize the Guard's experience."
Train like we fight
Pararescue is both physically and mentally demanding, requiring Air Guard PJs to come in for training more than the standard one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, said Degner.
"We have people who come in more than three times that amount and they love doing it because our job is fun, and that helps," he said with a smile, adding that you cannot expect to maintain all the required qualifications otherwise.
Degner said the career field has stringent physical requirements on par with other special operations career fields, because getting to victim and survivors - and getting them out - can be more than half the battle.
"Some of the methods that we use to get there include parachute operations, either static line or free-fall, so we do a lot of that in our training," he said. "We also train in helicopter operations, both over land and water, Scuba dive missions, high-angle rescue - rock climbing - and confined space and collapsed structures.
"We run a pretty large gambit of what we do ... as well as ... weapons qualifications [to maintain] high proficiency in all of our shooting skills," he said
Civilian rescue operations
Aside from their combat rescue roles, Air Guard pararescue units like the 212th Rescue Squadron in Alaska, often perform civilian rescue operations in times of extreme needs, like floods, hurricanes, and water rescues that are too far out for the Coast Guard's reach, said Degner.
Furthermore, what makes the Alaska Air National Guard's 212th RQS unique is that it provides a full time alert commitment for 11th Air Force and the state of Alaska, and can see between 80-100 civilian rescue alerts per year.
"The state is so large and vast that the Alaska State Troopers, who hold jurisdiction over land-based search and rescue here, cannot cover the whole state and don't have the assets to do that otherwise," said Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph Conroy, commander of the 212th RQS.
Fully trained to fly and perform operations in the rugged terrain of the Alaska, Conroy said the 212th RQS is known among locals as the "hometown rescue force."
"We have a great relationship with the Alaska State Troopers," he said. "They know us and we know them, and that really helps to strengthen ties with the local communities.
The 212th RQS also augments the U.S. Coast Guard on rescue operations when needed, said Conroy.
Conroy said performing so many rescue operations in Alaska translates directly to what the 212th does overseas, and makes them a better prepared team.
"What we're doing here ... gives us that higher level of experience and tremendously helps us to be prepared for missions overseas," he said. "This means, for us, that all we are really introducing to rescue operations in Afghanistan or Iraq is that tactical aspect."
Service above self
The creed of the PJ is "These things I do, that others may live," words that Degner said flow through the hearts of every PJ.
"PJs always [want] to go do something, and I don't know one PJ that wants to just sit at home and do nothing. We're always willing to go in and do whatever is needed of us," he said.
Degner said the job of a PJ requires a selfless mentality, to put the mission and the needs of others first.
"It's about not putting yourself ahead of the task at hand," he said. "I'm proud that I've been able to contribute that way for so long and that I've got my brothers also always putting the mission first and whatever is required of that mission, no matter what it is."
Of course, it helps when how you get to work is like nothing else, Degner said.
"Be it flying in helicopters, flying in C-130s, or skydiving, just to get to our job, [it's] unlike what most people do," he said. "Pulling people out of a firefight, saving their lives, it's pretty extraordinary."
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