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The American Pedros - No Nonsense Combat Rescuers


I asked Danish journalist Camilla Fuhr Nilsson to write two dispatches about USAF Pedros.  Camilla accompanied me at Camp Bastion.  Here is the first:

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.

Super troopers
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.


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  • This commment is unpublished.
    dymphna · 12 years ago
    I believe that is the name of the Danish special forces. The Danes are open-hearted and open-handed, just like the Americans. I often tell them that they must have Texan blood.

    Unlike much of Scandinavia, Denmark is pro-military and culturally strong.

    Mr. Yon, if you haven't done so, I suggest you look into joining the International Free Press Society. Started some time after the dust-up over the Danish MoToons.

    They'll support you, too. Many of our donors to our blog are from Denmark.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    lHoward E. Morseburg · 12 years ago
    Interesting, Camilla, the same topic that led all others during WWII. No sooner had we dropped the pilot off, and headed out to sea, then there were guys gathered either in the mess, or a cabin, and the subject was women. Girlfriends, wives, women in general, pick-ups in port, and then at times, children. There were the break-ups, the Dear John letters too, and it was a never-ending topic, including the jokes. It's rough when you leave them behind, but the hand-written letters we used to receive back then were something you could keep, re-read, and save, some saved for a lifetime.
    It's a pity so few of our young people get to serve, the experience the buddy-support, to learn how to live with their fellow men, to learn what it is to defend their freedoms.
    It is a wonderful article and worthy of being in company with Michael Yon's stories.
    And I know what Danes are like; the town of Solvang, nearby, is called The Danish Capital of America.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    lHoward E. Morseburg · 12 years ago
    Correction, please. I know better than that! Capitol.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Blackwater · 12 years ago
    It's interesting to read a female and European perspective. It's also nice to see that they're appreciated. Being a PJ sounds like a really dangerous (yet exciting and rewarding) job. Keep up the great work guys. And screw the weak women back home who can't tolerate your career choice. I hate people like that. Bunch of backstabbing spoiled cry babies.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peter in MN · 12 years ago
    Very good article, but as a viet nam era vet, I am constantly amazed by women on the front lines, and not reporters or nusrse, but medics, pilots, and I am not sure whatever dangerous occupation that should be done by a male. So, far, i haven't seen them in the Special Forces branch. My understanding is they do not run with the marines. I guess I am old fashion, having learned to protect the weaker sex. Is it right to have them on the front lines? I know Israel trains all their females in combat, but they do not share in the combat roles. What do other feel? Would you want your daughter doing this? Or your little neighbor girl? And as long as we are touching on this, address women on combat ships also!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 12 years ago
    A few questions/points, however:

    "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."

    Me neither. What did she mean?

    "They are pilots but they still eat a steak."

    Huh? Why can't/shouldn't pilots eat steak?

    "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."

    I know that there were actually a small number of British special forces troops active in Vietnam at one point, and there were also some British/British-born personnel that served with US forces at the time. But it was always my understanding that "Jolly Green" was a reference to the sweetcorn mascot The Jolly Green Giant, and was attached to the Air Force HH- Es because they were, well, gigantic and green.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    John Prime · 12 years ago
    More Morseburg, your first use of the word "capital" was correct in that context. The word "capitol" is only used in conjunction with the U.S. Capitol building or some other state capitol building. You were referring to a population center, so you were correct on the first try.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Reaps · 12 years ago
    ""They are pilots but they still eat a steak."

    Huh? Why can't/shouldn't pilots eat steak? "

    That's the *point*. They can't understand how 'I'm a police officer' is some kind of disqualifier for coming to a barbie. After all, "they are pilots but *they* still eat a steak"
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 12 years ago
    That makes sense. For some reason, I just couldn't find the connection between those two sentences.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Arch · 12 years ago
    The reason Americans go into very dangerous combat situations is that they know that if everything goes wrong, our SAR forces will come and get us. I know that for a fact.

    On April 28th, 1972, I would have been killed had Jolly Green Giants from the ARRS at DaNang not fished me out of the drink. It was the bravest single act I have ever seen.

    We were inside a SAM ring and only about 1 Km off the beach, which was owned be the enemy. In our international orange life rafts rafts, the NVA were shooting everything from 51 Cal, 82 MM mortar and VT fused 85MM at us.

    Two Jollies pitched up while SPADS and F4s pounded the beach. These HH-5 dropped in a PJ named Gordon Allet who helped my front seater (who had a spinal injury) get from his raft onto a penetrator while the helo hovered overhead. The ground fire was incredibly heavy and much more accurate because they had an object upon which to range. Allet swam over to me while I got on the seat and rode the lift with cracks of small arms fire passing very close. After prying me off the device, they picked up Allet and flew home like it was just another day at the office. The operation took several minutes, but seemed like an eternity.

    I have no idea where the USAF finds men brave enough to do this job, but I'm glad they do.

    Arch S. Arthur, Major USAF (retired)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    linda pressey · 12 years ago
    I think what the police officer ment was, she was on duty and could not attend the BBQ. Why didn't she just say it that way? I don't know ! Maybe she felt intimidated by the good looking pilots in the truck and tripped on her wording. Any way The BBQ was a success and the police woman did her job and the STEAK was eaten by the honored Pedro team. God Bless our military, we love you and appreciate all that you do. And God Bless Michael and all the other reporters that keep us in touch with the inside scoop. Thank You Linda
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Frank · 12 years ago
    Excellent article!
    You folks are doing a super job of getting the truth out.
    Michael I am setting up your banner links on my blogs and promoting your online magazine as much as possible.
    Recently also got info about you up on the CrossFit message board.
    I will work on raising funds for you at my CrossFit gym.
    Keep up the great work!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    pb · 12 years ago
    "The Pedros, as they are called, are well-known for their kamikaze- like operations."

    Flying into harm's way and risking their lives to save another's life is not a "kamikaze- like operation."

    Flying airplanes into buildings is a "kamikaze- like operation."

    Perhaps "kamikaze" has a connotation for Americans that it doesn't have for people from other countries.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Pete · 12 years ago
    Pete, hello from another Pete. Thanks for serving in uniform. Yes, it is a different world out there in terms of what women are allowed to do. Applicable laws permit women in non-combat roles, but as you see, that involves a good bit of leeway. There is no frontline per se, according the reports I've seen, in the GWOT (or whatever Obama calls it these days). Consequently, women serve in units that - in army jargon - "colocate" with combat units, including MPs, medics, EOD specialists, you name it. Everything but ground combat (infantry, armor, artillery, special ops) arms and submarines, and Adm. Mullin the CJCS, says he is open to sexually-integrating the silent service.

    I am as old as dirt myself (48), and have a tough time seeing women march off to war when I was turned down on the basis of age. Some of the gals are tough, and can the job - no questions asked - but others, well, I have my doubts. Saw a photo not all that long ago - maybe 2- years ago - of a female soldier sleeping with her teddy bear while on a deployment! Are you friggin' kidding me?? Nope. The U.S. Army is now among the largest providers of childcare in the world, because all those moms in the army need babycare. If you are interested in this issue at further length, read "Co-ed Combat" by Kingsley Browne, a superb study of this issue, as well as "Women in the Military" by Brian Mitchell, and "The Kinder Gentler Military" by Stephanie Guttman. All are good.

    Yep, it is a whole new world out there, and guys like me - who think men should fight the nation's wars - are dinosaurs in this day and age. Do I agree with things as they are? No, but there isn't darned thing I can do about the status quo. Carter and his pals sold out the military to the feminists 0 years ago, and it is now a done deal, anyone not on board for the coed military is hustled out of town on a rail, pronto.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lewis Van · 12 years ago
    Great article - looking forward to the next one.
    I receive a telephone call or an email periodically from my friend in the unit but they usually don't explain as much as your insight into daily life, which is good.
    Please continue with the current PJ units at Bastion.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    E.W. · 12 years ago
    I think the term Kamikaze is used to reinforce that the soldiers know that they are going to "almost certain death" but still go. There is a fine line between bravery and stupidity. Bravery is knowing the risk and doing it anyway.

    After 14 years in service as cavalry, I've spent many a night out on LP or OP in the middle of nowhere either alone or with one other person behind enemy lines. I can honestly say I never truly felt "alone" and knew that help was one radio call away. In fact I've seen it in action. At Camp Casey, in what used to be dragon valley there is a plaque on the wall of the administration hooch in 86' it was called Flannery Hall. He was fatally injured during a training accident but the call went out and there must have been 100 guys there to help within minutes including a 2 star general who's name escapes me.

    I'm proud to be part of that tradition that distinguishes the American Soldier as one of the finest the world has ever seen.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    J. Gorman · 12 years ago
    While I don't think it necessary to parse every sentence. It seems to me "kamikaze-like" refers to a single minded dedication in the face of danger. The next sentence clarifies that the individuals are "far from Kamikaze-like." The tone of the story in its entirety does not suggest any derogatory intent on the part of the writer. It is often necessary that writers use colorful and off-beat sentences and words to make the story interesting and readable. It is the intent that is important and Ms Nilsson's intent seemed okay with me
  • This commment is unpublished.
    P. Hartwick · 12 years ago
    Thank you for an evocative, well-written story. Why is it surprising to read a story that is plainly told that contains favorable comments about the efforts of American fighting forces?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lewis Van · 12 years ago
    I agree - good question. Too many times people associate their personal political opinion of "to be" or "not to be" in this war with their opinions of the soldiers in general. The dissidents have to remember that many of these soldiers have strong opinions about that very subject but believe, regardless of their own politics, that they have a job to do and they do their job as best they can no matter what. They are the real heroes and more stories should be about them, not reporting on the event of XYZ Car Bomb, et cetera.

    I also wonder why there is not an American film or show that portrays the soldiers in a positive light. I ended up watching a film mini-series on PBS called: "Nassiriya – Per non dimenticare" for two nights before I realized it was an Italian film dubbed in Spanish. I don't even know Spanish that well, but I could tell that it was a movie about present-day activities in the Middle East. I would rather watch something that glorifies soldiers in a different language than something that glorifies bufoons in "reality" television. We used to have so many war movies, I wonder why no more are done?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    R. Patrick · 12 years ago
    What the police officer meant was, she is in a position where even perceived indiscretions can lead to a loss of authority. Those in leadership positions are acutely aware of this and it is why they tend to, at times, act a bit stand-off'ish. It is usually to avoid compromising situations. Where they, the aircrew guys, do not see it that way. Coming from a combat arms background, I can say they see it from two points of view. One, they were being sincere in the invitation and see it as "only a meal"...everyone has to eat. Two, they probably do not respect the position she holds to begin with. (Who can respect the position of someone tasked to enforce traffic laws in a combat zone? It is never viewed from a public safety is perceived as just another way for the post CSM/Mayor Cell to mess with the soldiers. That in itself is a whole different topic).

    Terrific story

    "On On".. stay safe guys
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