Michael's Dispatches



14 September 2009
Helmand Province, Afghanistan

With the war increasing, Air Force Pararescue has been crisscrossing the skies picking up casualties.

That’s the Green Zone of Helmand Province, the opium capital of the world.  Those fields are the great ATM of our enemies here.  The fertilizer used to make those fields green is the same fertilizer used to make countless bombs.

We are flying in a special U.S. Air Force Pavehawk helicopter to fetch a seriously ill British soldier.

In Iraq, many of the casevacs were done by ground forces.  In other words, if we hit a bomb or got shot, soldiers would load up the dead and wounded and rush them to the CSH (Combat Support Hospital or “cash”).  But in Afghanistan most of the fighting occurs outside the cities and far away from the base hospitals.  Rescue helicopters stationed at places like Bagram, Kandahar Airfield and Camp Bastion have been flying thousands of missions.

Air Force Rescue Helicopters launching on a mission from Camp Bastion.

There are numerous helicopter rescue “services” in Afghanistan.  For instance, the British have MERTs (Medical Emergency Response Teams) that fly in a CH-47, and the U.S. Army uses Pavehawks as does the U.S. Air Force.  Special operations teams normally cover their own evacuations.

This U.S. Army rescue helicopter parked at Camp Bastion (Helmand) flies with the red cross symbol allowing the enemy to get a better aim at the helicopter.  Unfortunately, by displaying the red cross symbol, the helicopters are not allowed to carry miniguns or other large weapons.  This seems a rather questionable decision given that the Taliban and other enemies could not give a hoot about law.  It is unclear why the Army decided that a red cross provides more protection than miniguns.

These Air Force “Pedro” rescue helicopters have two miniguns each (total of four miniguns), and the PJs all carry M-4 rifles.  They do fire those weapons in combat.  In July, a helicopter swooped down during a rescue and picked up some wounded soldiers and then was shot down.  The second Air Force helicopter had to get the U.S. Army patients off the bird that had been shot down.  But there was not enough room in the second bird for the Pedro crew.  (No injuries.)  So the tiny Army OH-58 Kiowa helicopters flew out—Kiowas only seat two people and both seats were full—and some of the Pedro folks had to clip onto the skids and fly out like James Bond.

The damaged helicopter was left behind.  Bullets had hit a fuel line and caused the fuel to leak out, and so the pilot had no trouble landing, but the helicopter was now stuck in the middle of nowhere.  So after the Pedros rescued U.S. soldiers who then rescued Pedros, other soldiers flew out to rescue the Pedro helicopter.  The plan was to cut off the rotors and have a bigger helicopter use a cable to lift out the Pavehawk and fly it back to base.  But when the soldiers started using a saw on the rotors, sparks hit the fuel that had leaked and the Pavehawk burned to the ground.  The Army killed the Air Force’s helicopter.

The helicopters take hits.  On another mission in Helmand, an RPG shot through the tail but luckily it missed the transmission; if the RPG had hit the transmission, the entire crew likely would have been killed.  And so . . . those miniguns come in handy.  The gunners are great shots and can return accurate fire within seconds.

Some readers have gotten upset that I call them “Pedro,” thinking the name is secret.  The concern is welcome but not warranted in this case.  The Pedros don’t care and they even have a Pedro patch.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Barb · 12 years ago
    WOW. Amazing. Profound. Intense. Thank you for the pics and commentary.
    I teach high school students. I'm sure most of them do not realize all that goes on. (Nor do I) I try to make them aware...
    Thank you seems trite.
    However, you have our support, love, empathy and encouragement.
    Take good care.
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    DARREL NASH · 12 years ago
    Mike as always you rock. You cover things that no one else seems to care about. I love the Punisher symbol one of the door gunners had on his chest

    Deuce Four Historian.
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    Phantom · 12 years ago
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWaehyJb0pg - HD Footage shot this past couple of months from the Pedro's perspective.

    Awesome article Mr Yon, thanks for getting the info out straight
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    Randall Schultz-Rath · 12 years ago
    THANK YOU FOR THIS STORY! I am a retired Air Force rescue pilot and was honored to fly with PJs for over 20 years. The Combat Rescue team is truly an amazing national asset. FYI, the "Pedro" call sign came from the early days of rescue in Viet Nam, when SAR crews were flying HH-4 Helicopters.

    "These things we do, that others may live."
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    Sumpter Steve · 12 years ago
    Another great article. Those PJ's and the aircrew that shuttle them around have my respect. That's a tough job in an inhospitable area and they excell at it.
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    Brian Black · 12 years ago
    Great report, as usual, Mr Yon. Great job by these guys, and just one more excellent story about what a kick ass job our guys and gals are doing over there. Thanks very much. - Brian
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    DaveWVU · 12 years ago
    With all the bias and politics in the news, you and your honest and fair reporting are what is needed. Keep up the good work.
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    Eagles Dominion · 12 years ago
    Great article Mike!! I keep telling my son to keep an eye out for you. Thank you for your honest assessment of the situation over there. Stay safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike · 12 years ago
    Thanks Guys! PJs Rock. My fodest memories are being trained by PJs at PJOC @ Kirtland AFB. Some seriously highspeed airmen.
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    KenVT · 12 years ago
    Great pictures and our wonderful troops in action. Would love to see some of these clowns in congress have half the courage these folks display everyday. Thanks to all of yall that make freedom ring. God Bless
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    SangerM · 12 years ago
    1. Just a small note: Gates is not an 'enemy of CSAR. The helicopter program was apparently not going where he felt it needed to go. The PJs are still being trained because aside from the humane aspect of it all, a downed pilot is a huge investment at risk. The issue is the helicopter, not the PJs.

    2. Army MEDEVAC helicopters are required to be marked and unarmed per the Geneva convention, and regardless of what the enemy does, signatories to the GC are required to abide by its strictures. Also, MEDEVAC helicopters rarely fly into a hot spot without some kind of fire support, either from the ground or the air. The helicopters are not armed and the crews are not trained the way PJs are because they do not have the same mission. As was said above, PJs do combat search and rescue.

    PS: GREAT photos, great article. I envy your skill and eye!
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    Sherrianne1 · 12 years ago
    Thank you again M. Yon! As always, your pictures are worth a thousand words, so good too know these guy's are there taking care of our brave soldiers!
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    Jerry Taylor · 12 years ago
    Wonderful stuff, Michael. Now we know what a hero our grandson is! He mans a gun at the window. The photos are outstandinding and very informative.

    JT 7
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    Eric H. · 12 years ago
    I spent a combined 27 years active and reserve time in the Air Force (far, far away from any combat), but on one occasion during an exercise had a chance to work with some PJs. They're absolute and consummate professionals and totally selfless, and I've been in awe of these guys ever since. Thanks for putting up this article...too many people have no idea what PJs are or what they're all about.
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    Paul Ratcliffe · 12 years ago
    It's a shame there aren't more books written about these guys, as I for one would love to find out more. I hope you manage to stay with this particular group as long as possible.

    Congratulations on what you're doing and Good Luck.

    And thank you and good luck to all those in the forces from the UK, US and everywhere else.
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    Drake · 12 years ago
    A commenter above asks “how the ISAF forces attract such amazingly capable human beings...?” In the 18 years I’ve been associated with CSAR, I’ve come to be amazed at just how ordinary and normal my fellow airman are. Ordinary like Clark Kent - something happens when the call for help goes up. The transformation is amazing when the hero inside comes out. Happens with active duty forces of course but maybe it’s even more striking in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units that make up about 50 percent of rescue force. They are there in Afghanistan and in Iraq alongside the active duty. Rescue squadrons are filled with cops and firemen, of course but there are also teachers and lawyers, airline pilots and Harley mechanics. You know that 50-ish guy who comes in to repair your Xerox machine? He could be a flight engineer with the local unit that insists on flying around a 2 AM disturbing your good night’s sleep. You might want to ask him about that mission where he earned the Air Force Cross. You won’t, of course, because unless you’re there when the siren sounds you’ll never see the change and you’ll never know. Witnessing this change among your fellow soldiers (or airman, or sailors, or Marines), normal men all, is probably the sort of thing that inspired Robert E Lee to write “It is well that war is so terrible -- lest we should grow too fond of it.”
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    Christina Whitaker · 12 years ago
    I actually have the pleasure of knowing most of the men in these pictures. My husband is also a PJ and works with most of them. I do believe they do not get the recognition they deserve. They are an amazing group of men and I appreciate and support everything they do for us. Thank you so much for what you do, you have no idea how much you mean to us! Michael Yon, thank you for taking the time to show America how important our PJ's are to our country.
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    Slick · 12 years ago
    Just got home a couple days ago from our 4 month rotation providing medevac to our bro's. Now i'm catching up with Michael's work. Even had the pleasure of having him fly with us on our last couple days in country.

    As a crew member of PEDRO 5, a resident of POD 501 (same tent city as 2 Rifles), and everyday deliverer of wounded to Nightengale (hospital at Bastion where Danes, US, and UK Doc's and Nurses provide WORLD CLASS medical care), I pray everyday for the safety of "my brothers and sisters" in the field. Everyday we sat in our CP hoping to get to fly all the while praying that the call didn't come. More often than not, the 9 line medevac request came. And you bet your ass, no matter the circumstances, nationality, or threat to us...if you've been injured fighting to preserve the right to not live in fear of radicals...we're coming to bring you home!

    My unit has since left, but the PEDRO callsign is carried on by another incredible AF unit.

    I'm not a political guy. While I wish that there were more helicopters to do the job better, I don't give a shit why or how. All I know is that I was glad to be one of the guys that made sure so many will get to be with their families again. Unfortunately there were some that did pay the ultimate price. You should all know that these fallen heroes (refered to as "Angels" by PEDRO) were ALWAYS given the same priority in respect to going in to get them regardless of threat to us. Everyone goes home. I was on 127 missions and will forever remember the grateful faces of the incredibly brave warriors. A little emotional I know, and while I'm glad to be home, I miss being there to help.

    God Bless the "Norsemen", "Chosen", "Widow", and any others that I may have missed. Keep your head on a swivle and rock on Michael.
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    Paul Yarborough · 12 years ago
    Simply an amazingly stunning, and moving report Mr Yon. Thank you! These guys are Champions within the collective group of Heros, that is our military!
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    SAR Bum · 12 years ago
    I was surprised that a) "Pedro" has survived as a call sign in combat search and rescue, and b) anyone was concerned that "Pedro" was "secret." "Pedro" has been around since Vietnam, if not as far back as the Korean War. George Galdorisi's book, "Leave No Man Behind: A History of Combat Search and Rescue," discusses it. I'm not associated with the author, but it is an entertaining, well researched book.
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    claudia · 12 years ago
    Great story Michael. Great Job PJ"s and may god be with you and all of our men and women in the military. We Americans I included are extremely proud to have you defending and protecting our fine country,

    God speed to you all and your families and thank you!
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    Neil Bausor · 12 years ago
    Having left the military, since flying CH47s out of Bastion 2 years ago, it's great to see such clear, objective reporting from Afghanistan - it's a shame that the MOD stopped Michael's embed with the Brit forces, but any news is fascinating to get. Just a shame that there is probably no simple answer to the problem, and many more will die before the powers-at-be realise that?
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    Linda White · 12 years ago
    Even though I cannot support the war, I can, and always will, support and admire true courage and honor, attributes obviously shared by the people you've shown. A very dear friend of mine forwarded this to me as one of her sons flew with you on these missions (she has two who both recently came home safe and sound). Thank you for an honest portrayal of what's going on over there.
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    Tom · 12 years ago
    What is the deal with this helmet?
    0.jpg" target="_blank">http://www.michaelyon-online.com/images/stories/pedro/michael-yon-2acc-7 0.jpg 0.jpg" class="jcm-img-preview" />
    That is the coolest thing I have ever seen. Makes Darth Vader look like a sissy.
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      Kerry · 10 years ago
      wondering what do you mean by 'what is the deal with this helmet' ???????
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    The Sanity Inspector · 12 years ago
    Tremendous folks, the best.
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    AFSister · 12 years ago
    PJ's are truly amazing. I'm so glad you were able to go out with them and report back to us. My cousin is an Army Blackhawk medivac pilot and is on her way to AFG now (could already be there, but she's probably in Kuwait still). Perhaps she'll take their place at Robinson. I guess we'll have to wait to find out, but judging from your story, I'd say she'd gonna be one busy pilot, unfortunately.
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    qbit · 12 years ago
    .. i mean bin laden isn't listed on the FBI wanted list for 9/11, and most of the hijackers were saudis, not afghans.
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    Truckie117 · 12 years ago
    Another great story Had the honor of working with the PJ's few days after the attack in NY Out Standing people
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    John Woods · 12 years ago
    Wow, those are some REALLY cool images!

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    Air Force Mom · 12 years ago
    Wow! My son is training to be FE on the Pavehawk. This gave me quite an introduction into what he will be doing. I couldn't be prouder.
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    Air Force Mom · 12 years ago
    Wow! My son is training to be FE on the Pavehawk. This gave me quite an introduction into what he will be doing. I couldn't be prouder.
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      Kerry · 9 years ago
      my son is a CSAR Pave hawk FE... scary stuff it is !!
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    PavePilot · 12 years ago
    Often, the gunners and flight engineers have to stick their heads out the window (even when the bullets are flying) to fire their weapons or clear the flight path, especially when the aircraft is oriented so the pilots cannot see. This design helps protect their face and communication equipment from wind and flying debris.
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    dennis · 12 years ago
    were in the heck was this crap in the story,
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    Brian · 12 years ago
    While MERTs may have a DR onboard and be bigger, that does not detract from Pararescuemen's medical capabilities whatsoever. All PJs are nationally registered paramedics, all receive advanced "dirt medicine" training, and most are Advanced Tactical Practitioners for USSOCOM.
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    BLC · 12 years ago
    These guys have been at this a long time.
    Many downed flyers are here today because teh Jolly Greens came into Laos, Cambodia and other ugle places to haul our asses out.
    Thanks guys.
    I'll never forget you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Paul Duey · 12 years ago
    Great stuff Mike. Without your photos it'd be hard to visualize the outstanding sacrifices these men make. How can we possibly thank them?
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    Petar · 12 years ago
    Great report and really nice pictures! But I am wandering, I cannot see if passengers on the chopper are somehow tied to the helicopter? Do you have some belt so you cannot fall out or you just have to hold on on those tight manouvers?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chris Underwood · 12 years ago
    Those Pedros are from my unit and they're solid as Rocks.
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    Tarkan Bulan · 12 years ago
    It will be great honour to work with these life savers. Thank you very much to show us.
    I hope these wars will end as soon as possible and all these heros will return to their loved ones.
    Michael Yon, you are really lucky and breave. All the commanders who are brave enough to let us see the real life are great heros too.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Drito · 12 years ago
    These are the guys who have killed 1500.000 civilians over in Iraq and Avganistan.Crusaders modern times. How will feel when they lose the war.
    Where are the pictures of the mass killings of civilians.Googl little. Or will Bush drained brain.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Stephanie J. · 12 years ago
    I have several friends whose husbands are PJs. Thanks for sharing these compelling photos and a little bit of their daily bravery.
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    DSW · 12 years ago
    The Army is required by the Geneva Convention to have medevac helicopters unarmed and marked by the distinctive Red Cross, even if our opponent does not. Here are the relevant sections:

    A-7. The medical aircraft shall bear, clearly marked, the distinctive emblem together with their national colors on their lower, upper, and lateral surfaces.

    A-11.When engaging in medical evacuation operations, medical personnel are entitled to defend themselves and their patients. They are only permitted to use individual small arms.
    A-12.The mounting or use of offensive weapons on dedicated medical evacuation vehicles and aircraft jeopardizes the protections afforded by the Geneva Conventions. These offensive weapons may include, but are not limited to machine guns, grenade launchers, hand grenades, and light antitank weapons.

    Now whether you agree with this or not is up for debate. But that's the why part of the question. I assume PJ's are armed, like the previous poster noted, because they are not strictly medical evacuation units but perform combat search and rescue. The Japanese targeted medics in World War II but I've read the Germans showed more restraint. And Michael, thank you for these reports. It is great to have your first-hand accounts of the war in Afghanistan. Keep up the good work and Godspeed.
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    lono_68 · 12 years ago
    Damn great story! These guys are awesome! All the PJ's kick butt! Hardcore!! Say an extra prayer for them as they go about doing their job.
    Thanks for another great dispatch Michael!
    Stay golden!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ednonymous · 12 years ago
    Bless them all and Godspeed.
    Return safely y'all.
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    Bojan · 12 years ago
    I dont like war but those images are great ! i really felt like im there with you reading through this article. Great photos great story !
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    Todd B · 12 years ago
    While the PJ's do some of the Medevac work in Afghanistan, the bulk is done by the Army. I find it interesting that you blame the Army for the Air Force mistake's. Over the past year in Afghanistan it's been the Air Force that has lost helicopters due to pilot negligence with the Army losing 0. With extremely heavy helicopters, underpowered engines and inexperienced PJ's , they just are not equipped, trained or competent at critical care rescue's. With the impending lose of the ERQ'S mission, the Air Force is scrambling to save their rescue squadrons, pushing into the Army Medevac system.
    While over the past year the PJ's have treated hundreds of patients, the U.S. Army flight medics have treated thousands over that same time frame; taking care of all critical patients as the PJ's have proven that they are incapable of handling serious, intubated patients.
    So I suggest to quit ripping on the real Medevac, the U.S. Army.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Pavehawk Pilot · 4 years ago
      Todd, Dude, having served in AFG, I have the greatest respect for both AF Rescue and MEDEVAC, two totally different missions. What's your problem? MEDEVAC does large quantity recovery of injured personnel to next higher level of care. Unarmed, brave, but heinously vulnerable. Pedros are combat rescue, less space in back, but armed to the teeth and can fight in and out.

      Your comments about PJs are just flat out wrong, 25 years of combat to back up my statement that PJs are the finest medics in the entire US military. SOF are good, but PJs are the absolute best.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    scott randle · 12 years ago
    Thanks,Michael. great photojournalism. I was Special Forces(Viet Nam era) and I'm so proud of all who serve today.They are the best our country has to offer.
    Airborne! All the Way!
    Scott Randle
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    Kevlaur · 12 years ago
    Thanks, once again, Michael for showing us what great folks we have in the military. The role of the PJs in Black Hawk Down was overshadowed in the movie.

    And, yes, casstx, that would be against opsec.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    David H Villarreal M · 12 years ago
    Admiration and respect for these guys. Had learned a lot form them
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    rachel · 12 years ago
    Thank you Michael for the great report you did. It was awesome! God Bless all of our troops and home they can come home soon.
    Love to all our troops. God Bless you

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