By Camilla Fuhr Nilsson
Published: 27 September 2009
It is the last weekend of August 2009. It is also the last weekend in southern Afghanistan for the currently deployed US Air Force rescue crew 129th . They have been in Camp Bastion for four months and have taken on over 400 rescue missions in this deployment. The Pedros, as they are called, are well-known for their kamikaze- like operations. They are far from kamikaze-like themselves but their personalities stand out. These are their last days in the theatre. This time around.
”Dude, I’m like so tired,” Adrian says to Josh.
The dark-haired Adrian, who looks a lot like Friends actor David Schwimmer and the smaller sweet-looking Josh have just completed a twelve-hour shift which had begun with a rescue mission at 2 AM and ended with a rescue that had taken their last strength away for the day. Now they have to get everything in order for the farewell BBQ tonight. It’s a very hot and sunny Saturday afternoon in Helmand.
“You know any Danish nurses?” they both ask me.
There are only two females in the Pedro crew and the guys need to talk to someone else besides a fellow aircrew member. So they ask the Danish journalist. They have already met the Danish nurses under different circumstances delivering patients but forgot to ask them to come to the BBQ. I reply with a “sure” even though I’m just a fellow Dane and haven’t met the nurses.
The two young men--Adrian is a gunner and Josh’s a pilot--carry on with their task of having to set up the grill party. They drive around the camp in a beat-up Toyota truck with no air conditioning and broken power windows, looking for charcoal in the PXes--the small shops with a limited selection of brands from different countries. They drive around camp with the doors open to get some air until a British camp police woman asks them to close the doors.
“Why do you drive with the doors open? It’s dangerous,” the woman says.
“Because we can’t open the window,” they reply matter-of-factly.
They ask her to the BBQ but she respectfully declines.
“I’m a police officer,” she says.
The guys laugh as they drive away. They didn’t get what she meant. They are pilots but they still eat a steak. “Whatever”, they say amongst themselves, shrugging behind the wheel.
The charcoal is found in an American PX and then it’s back to the tent living area to get the grill going. 156 huge T-bone steaks have been delivered from Kandahar Airfield a thirty- minute flight away, and the guys are looking forward to the event even though they’d rather sleep at this point. They have been working since 2 AM and it’s now 4 PM.
“I’m just gonna go to the gym for an hour,” Adrian says when the grill is on. The Pedros are never too tired to work out.
The Pedros as the combat rescue team is called, is also known as Jolly Greens. The Pedros got the name sometime during the Vietnam War, where a British soldier supposedly voiced a “jolly good”, when he was rescued or so the legend goes. The reality is that Pedro was the call sign used to identify the flight, which in Vietnam was a HH-43 (Huskie). The Jolly Green Giants was named after the HH-3E helicopter, also used in Vietnam. In the current wars the Pedro call sign is now used in Afghanistan to differentiate the Iraq and Afghanistan war. But the logo is the same. Two footprints in green.
Black Hawk Down
It’s the day after the BBQ. The meat fest didn’t include alcohol so no one is hung over. The Danish nurses didn’t arrive but the American rescue crew had fun anyway and partied with the British soldiers from 2 Rifles--the owners of the tent, the Pedros, live in in Camp Bastion.
The pilots, gunners, engineers and pararescue jumpers are relaxing with a movie in the chill-out area next to the command center. It’s the same tent but with a door between and with several couches and a flatscreen TV.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” one of the PJs--short for pararescue jumper--says as he walks in the room. The film is Black Hawk Down.
The film recounts a rescue in Somalia in 1993 in what is known as the Battle of Mogadishu where a few US Army Black Hawk helicopters went down. The film is what could happen to the Pedro team and the soldier in question doesn’t want to see the film right now.
“Maybe when I get back home,” he says, uneasy watching what could go wrong.
The flight crew train to rescue fighter pilots that are shot down. They don’t want it to be the other way around.
Bravo category rescue
The time is 9:45 AM on Sunday, August 30th and the Pedro crew receives a call from JHFA (Joint Helicopter Forces Afghanistan) dispatcher. It’s a category Bravo which means it’s not urgent but not routine either. It might be a soldier who is wounded but his injuries are not life-threatening. Yet. The Bravo category could be upgraded to an Alpha by the time the Pave Hawks get to the rescue zone--the Pave Hawks are what the Black Hawks are called in the Air Force--so everyone is hurrying, grabbing a bottle of water for the hot ride. They run out to the vehicles and drive to the helicopter launch pad. All their gear--the helmet, body amour, weapons--are already in the helicopter because they need to be able to take off fast.
Five minutes later they are airborne--with the latest update on where they are going and what they are going for. If the patient is a soldier wounded on the battlefield and the soldiers are still engaged in battle, the crew will be landing in what they call a hot LZ-- a landing zone engaged in battle. Sometimes they rescue Afghan nationals--often kids--who are brought to the forward operating bases by their parents or the patients are members of the Afghan National Army or Police.
The flight crew talk to the soldiers on the ground to get the latest info. They do this to ensure the information they have is always up to date and current because a lot could have happened since they got the call from the dispatcher. This time it’s a British soldier with appendicitis they have to pick up from a forward operating base and there’s no change from the original information received.
10:30 they are back at the base and get back into what they were doing before taking off. Some eat food from the British cookhouse or chocolate fudge cake or strawberry gateau delivered from the Ministry of Cake. Then a briefing by the detachment commander Mat, and then the crew settles back into the movie area, or writes an email home from the one machine designated to private use.
The crew jokes around a lot. There is a sense of calm and quiet relaxation between the adrenaline-pumping rescue missions. The 129th division crew knows each other well and most of them work together back home too. They make fun of each other and it’s like watching a scene from the movie Super troopers. They don’t joke around at the expense of other people outside the Pedro team like the Super Troopers but they do have fun and they have the similar kinds of outgoing personalities. And several of them have a moustache.
Mat is the detachment commander, but with a brown moustache he looks like a gentle and handsome husband rather than a combat rescue pilot but he swears a lot when briefing the other pilots. He seems laid-back with the type of cool you find in special ops soldiers. Then there’s Rick--a flight engineer--who wears two watches and has a picture of his son and two baby twins in his locker. The twins are a friend of Ricks. Rick seems like an all-American polite nice guy, who’s in good shape--they all are in fact--and remembers to drink his water.
They are all fairly young. PJ Tommy is married though and so are the majority of them. He’s handsome and well-build and lives in Georgia. He calls me Dutch. I tell him I’m not from Holland and make a joke about his height. The others laugh and give me high fives but Tommy looks like I overstepped a line. He’s smiling though even though I joked about something he can’t change. I’ll remember to apologize later.
11:30 and there’s another call for the crew’s expertise and they leave abruptly. Adrian and Josh had just gone to the hospital to say goodbye to someone but they all carry walkie talkies and they will make the Pave Hawk bird before takeoff for the Bravo patient. It’s the 394th rescue mission in this 120-day deployment.
Any given Saturday
On Friday just a day ago the entire shift was mission free. The enemy doesn’t work on Fridays it seems as Fridays are always quiet--it is the Taliban’s day off, like our Saturdays. So no one was injured this Friday and the 12 hours were long for both teams. You could tell they would rather be out there flying but on the other hand they are happy they are not needed. If they are flying it means one of their fellow soldiers is wounded so they would rather be bored watching a movie. Beowolf, Zack and Miri Make a Porno just to name a couple.
The Pedro team is working from the flight line in Camp Bastion 1 and when they are not flying someone else always is. The British Chinooks are transporting people between bases or the Hercules C130 is taking off so there’s always a constant noise from rotor blades or engines. The Pedro team doesn’t sense it. I almost can’t hear what they are saying in the movie but they are used to noise I guess.
The two different Pedro crews either work from 2AM to 2PM or 2PM to 2AM every day for four months. It’s a lot of hours and even though they are not constantly busy they are still at work. When not working they are working out in the gym or just running in the afternoon heat or watching a movie or sleeping.
Saturday night live
Saturday is BBQ night for the teams leaving. The Pedro team that’s on duty has been busy while the BBQ is set up but now they are there eating the big juicy steaks that the other teammates have grilled. It’s a rarity here with steaks as it’s normally chicken, rice or some meat dish or fish with french fries. So everyone turns up. The second shift team has been on four missions back to back--just delivering patients to the hospital and back out, so they are exhausted and the steak is well-deserved.
Some of the guys have been up since 2 AM but they are still at the tailgate grill setup talking about mainly girls. There aren’t any at the BBQ besides me but women and wives and girlfriends are what are on their minds when they are not working. Naturally. There is an absence of regular human contact between them, not even a hug and they miss that and mistake the lack of human contact for something else.
Most of the guys turn in early to get a few hours sleep before the next shift.
Home and away
The American guys work hard--harder than any other country’s military here in Afghanistan. They are deployed and redeployed all the time and some of the guys here come straight from Iraq with only a few weeks at home in between. It’s difficult to understand how they are able to have families but the majority of them seem to make it work somehow. They must have strong wives back at home who understand that they have chosen a job that requires them to be away for most of the year. One guy is divorcing though--he got a letter from his wife saying she moved out. It’s very difficult for the crew to deal with these things when they are in a mindset of war and there’s no support system in place. Luckily he is on his way home to deal with his other life. The pilot in question also has to deal with having a brother who was badly injured in Afghanistan a few weeks ago and is now in a hospital back in the States. Dealing with two major crises of that caliber when deployed to rescue others in combat situations is a huge accomplishment and most people would not be able to handle this even at home. These guys do. The Pedro no nonsense combat rescuers.
Now this deployment for the 129th expeditionary rescue squadron is over. Some of the crew members go back to base in California and others to Japan. Some of the jolly rescuers will be back in December and some next year for another mission to save wounded soldiers.