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.
    Tom · 11 years ago
    Thanks for the dispatch, Michael. These are truly courageous men.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    C. Ochsner · 10 years ago
    Fantastic picuters of these brave mens. Looking forward to your next tour in Afghanistan and I wish you all the best!! Take good care .....
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ted Dannemiller · 10 years ago
    Well done MY, and Bless the Pedros and all the CASEVAC crews. Great folks who care about our soldiers, AND the Afghans.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    D Griego · 10 years ago
    Thank you for all that you do! I have a son in the Infantry, knowing that you guys do what you do, and do it well gives me some peace. Be safe and God bless and keep every one of you!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Quade · 10 years ago
    The Pedros are an invaluable asset to our armed forces. The cohesive bond that they have not only amongst themselves, but with the British and Danish forces as well shows the greatness and strength of this phenomenal team. Thank you Pedros for your selfless caring for those sick and injured in the line of duty. Thank you Michael for your fantastic portrayal of these guys, as well as the awesome pictures that you present that make the depth of the situations really come to life. Keep up the great work Michael!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Pit Bill · 10 years ago
    Thanks for the story and great pics Michael, God bless our PJ's!!! Love the PEDRO patch! Stay safe and keep up the great work, we support and thank you all.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    RescueAngel · 10 years ago
    It is a probe for mid-air refueling.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    RQS guy · 10 years ago
    These are not the Army Medevac guys and do not fly under the Red Cross. Yes, the aircraft is armed, and they will/do shoot back!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike · 10 years ago
    I have always had tremendous respect for the Air Force's Pararescuemen and the crews they fly with. They are the unsung heroes of the USAF - along with the Combat Controllers working to secure air fields and Combat Weathermen. It seems to me that my Air Force brothers get the short end of the stick in the literary world as there are so few stories that tell of their courage in combat and other life-or-death situations. Only three stories I have read come to mind - Pararescue, Black Hawk Down and Battle of Robert's Ridge. Thank you for this awesome story and the photos accompanying it. I wish I could have seen some of the things you did in regards to how these men save lives.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Slick · 10 years ago

    Here's a great article written by our DetCo at the time.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    tj anthony · 10 years ago
    great article...where are Pedros stationed in the USA? They saved my Irish buddy and gave him a patch but the doctors threw away his uniform (and patch). He'd like another and to thank whoever saved him on 11/24/10 in Geresach. thans again
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sara Johnson · 10 years ago
    I read this the first time when it came out, and at your suggestion, reread it for your upcoming dispatches. It still amazes me the professionalism, bravery, and skills these soldiers have. The photography educates, and illustrates the conditions they face. Remarkable reporting a second time around, too! Thank you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Les C · 10 years ago
    Enjoyed your input ref the "Pedros.' I worked w/Pedros back in the "old days" of '65-68 while based at a radar site on Okinawa as a radar operatopr and TAC Controller. I'm not sure, but I think the Pedros were part the vast ARS based out of Naha AB. Lots of missions were flown in and around 'Nam, both North and South. Back then Pedros flew the HH-4 s. I also seem to remember that the SU-16s were part of the overall effort. I flew a couple of training/orintations missions on the SU-16 in the Okinawan FIR dooing "warer works" in Buckner Bay.
    Keep up the great work...
    The average GI knows from where you come from and where you've been..
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Anne M Wenneson · 10 years ago
    Hi. If you bless the GIs helmet liners with Holy Oil, I think they will be o.k.
    You can just make the sign of the cross with it.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    ROK Doc · 10 years ago
    Thanks for the article, as an old (80's) medic I worked with the US Army Dustoffs in Korea who flew the "brand new" Blackhawks, complete with targets (Red Crosses) all over. Until I left active duty I was not aware that the PJ's who I have nothing but respect for, flew with weapons. I assumed for many years it was like the SF medics, they were SpecOps and not subject to the Geneva Convention. I realize now it is strictly Army politics and helo companies who benefit from those stupid targets and lack of armament. I left the military years ago, but thanks to Michael for keeping us old soldiers and the public aware of the lack of intelligence of the Army brass.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ron · 10 years ago
    Army Brass needs to be fired, if not prosecuted for rank stupidity.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ron · 10 years ago
    Better yet, send the Army Brass out in the field where THEY live or die under their own stupid policies.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tom Duncan · 10 years ago
    The name "Pedro" as applied to air rescue/medivac helicopters dates back to the Viet Nam days. We also used it while training back in the 1980's. It was an Air Cavalry unit (Army) and the callsign was assigned to whomever was tasked to extract crews from any attack helicopters that might be lost.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    OMAN2537 · 10 years ago
    Worked MEDOPS desk in '09/'10 with and for some OUTSTANDING Army NCOs. They taught me the basics of MEDEVACs and CASEVACs and, upon leaving, graduated me with honors!

    Prior to working the desk, however, I spent time with the PJs and their pilots to get a better understanding of THEIR capabilities! Everything you've written to date that I've read, Mike, is 100% in lock-step with what the pedro pilots told me! They come in UNESCORTED and extract whatever wounded are there...REGARDLESS OF THE CONDITIONS OF LINE-1 AND LINE-6!!

    9-line comes in...considering who's on-deck will determine how long the "golden hour" takes. As the person on the ground, I'm ASSUMING they'd prefer sooner than later.

    Keep up the great work, Mike!! You're an advocate for common sense and I, as an officer, love seeing that!!
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    Ron Ayotte · 9 years ago
    Excellent story. These guys as well as the dustoff crews are unsung heroes.
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    I had the pleasure (not sure if that is the right word considering the circumstances) of seeing these guys do their thing in Afghanistan in 2010. One of our guys fell in a well (it was night time, and we were creeping around a compound) and he broke his leg. Within half an hour Pedro arrived and casevac'd him. No hesitation flying into hot (dangerous, I'm British!) areas and very heavily armed. Good blokes
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