Video by Joey Mendolia.
If you get stuck or injured out in the middle of nowhere, Alaska isn’t the worst place to do it. The state hosts some of the most elite, specialized rescue operators and equipment in the world. Many of the same pilots and medics who work in military combat zones overseas train in Alaska, practicing their techniques and tactics on in-state Search and Rescue operations. For a small group of military specialists, the state’s unique terrain and wilderness make it an ideal training ground.
On a recent January morning, with the ground temperature around 8 degrees, the rear cargo ramp of a an HC-130J cargo plane was open. A few thousand feet below, the frosty trees, frozen rivers and snowy mountains ringing Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson zoomed by down below.
Members of the Alaska Air National Guard got ready to throw objects out of the plane’s long belly toward the drop-zones on the ground. One prop was called “the heavy.” Comprised of metal railroad ties and other weights affixed to a pallet-like platform, the contraption weighed around 600 pounds. When it was released, the heavy rolled out of the plane’s rear ramp with a metallic whooshing sound and surprising rush of air. It disappeared before floating into the distant background beneath two green parachutes hovering above it like lily-pads.
On this training mission, the heavy and several other parcels were supposed to simulate dropping equipment and supplies into a rescue situation.
The next things out: the humans.
On board the plane are three elite pararescuemen, medics who train for military personnel recovery in difficult situations. Nicknamed PJ’s, they wore brightly colored jackets and jump-suits, futuristic looking parachute backpacks, helmets, goggles and everything else necessary to keep flesh from freezing during a 4,000-foot decent through the January air.
“In terms of rescue, this is the place to be,” explained Major Niul Manske of the 212th Rescue Division during a pre-jump briefing Wednesday morning. Combat Rescue Officers and PJ’s are the Air Force’s elite medics. They’re the ones who train to go behind enemy lines in conflict zones and rescue downed fighter pilots, or extract injured soldiers from mountainous cliffs. They are expected not only to survive for days at a time in rugged environments, but treat all manner of life-threatening injuries in the process. In addition to hazardous terrain and perilous weather, in war zones they are expected to navigate lethal threats from an enemy, as well.
Alaska offers these special forces an ideal place to train, and be useful to the state’s civilian population in the process.
“The missions that we have here in Alaska are as complicated, as difficult, and as life-threatening as they are down-range,” Manske said, using a military term for combat zones.
Manske was recently deployed to Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. Though tactics differ markedly from state-side missions, PJ’s use many of the same rescue medicine techniques when they deploy. The same expertise navigating High Altitude, Low Opening parachute jumps or helicopter-assisted hoists can be used in remote rescue scenarios, say reaching injured hikers, stranded snowmachiners, or mountainous airplane crashes in Alaska.
PJ’s are the specialists of last resort in the state’s elaborate web of Search and Rescue capabilities. They are the ones sent out for recovery if other agencies like the Coast Guard, State Troopers, or Civilian Air Patrol aren’t able.
Knowing when that’s what the situation calls for is determined by the Rescue Coordination Center run out of a modest office on JBER. There, Lieutenant Colonel Keenan Zerkel leads a staff of 12 that monitor military and civilian Search and Rescue emergencies around the clock.
Zerkel’s original connection with the RCC and its pararescuemen was personal.
“I love it because my brother was pulled off of a mountain back in 1995 when he was in a plane crash,” he explained. “This unit went out and saved his life. And so it’s pretty special for me to get to go out and pick up other people.”
Not every remote medical emergency or Search and Rescue operation calls for military assets. Hospitals along the road system will typically call on private companies like LifeMed to get patients to urgent care. Oftentimes the Troopers or local search and rescue groups are in the best position to find a stranded individual. But the Rescue Center acts like a brain, a headquarters for centralizing information and communication to figure out the best thing to do.
Because Alaska is so big and the environment so challenging, the Rescue Center personnel get a lot of practice carrying out missions. For the RCC that means constantly practicing protocals for multi-agency coordination. For the pilots flying airplanes and helicopters, as well as their crews and the PJ’s, it means continuously honing their skills in situations somewhere between training drills and full-blown combat operations. The capability is a benefit to the state, and the repetition is an asset for unit personnel.
“We’re used to flying in the dark, we’re used to flying over mountains, we’re used to flying in snow storms, we’re used to being out of gas, we’re used to someone bleeding in the back,” Zerkel said. “We get exposed to these stressors.”
By it’s own count, during the last 25 years the Rescue Coordination Center under Alaska Air National Guard’s 176th Wing has saved around 2,400 lives.