It’s late in the afternoon, and it’s an uncharacteristically slow day at the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.
HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters are parked along the flightline, sitting motionless and unoccupied, and the Airmen inside the squadron check email or relax in the break room.
Suddenly, a phone rings, and the entire building springs to life. A medical evacuation request has just come in for a “Category Alpha” point-of-injury pickup, and everyone in the squadron – from Pave Hawk maintainers and pilots to mission planners and pararescuemen, or PJs – are now on the move.
Right now, speed is important.
“Launching for a ‘Cat A’ patient, our contract is that we will get that survivor back to advanced medical care within one hour of notification,” said Capt. Chris Obranovich, an 83rd ERQS combat rescue pilot. “So when those calls come out, each minute is critical.”
The team has 15 minutes to get off the deck to ensure the patient’s best chance for survival.
“When a person is injured, we follow the ‘Golden Hour’ rule,” said Capt. Brian Carey, an 83rd ERQS combat rescue officer. “If we can get someone back to the combat support hospital within 60 minutes of the injury, they have an extremely good chance of surviving.”
In addition to critical point of injury casualty evacuation missions, the squadron is also tasked with personnel recovery operations. These missions can range from conducting combat search and rescue operations to rescuing injured civilians or Soldiers in the battlefield, according to Obranovich.
“We have an armed recovery force that can go into a high-risk scenario, into an active (troops in contact), conduct a recovery and bring personnel back to safety without an armed escort or other ground assets,” Carey said.
The squadron is tasked with covering a large portion of eastern Afghanistan, known as Regional Command-East.
“We can go anywhere from an hour to two hours away to recover personnel, and we have the capabilities to conduct aerial refueling if necessary,” Carey said. “The distance we cover, with the terrain we operate, in makes this area up here in RC-East a very challenging area to operate in.”
Preparation and training, both at home station and while deployed, go a long way to ensure the pilots and PJs are prepared for any challenge.
“It helps quite a bit being able to train back home station with our own pararescuemen,” Obranovich said. “Training together gives us an understanding of what their needs are, and how to communicate and operate as an effective team here.”
Training missions in Afghanistan also provide experience operating in the same terrain and conditions as real-world operations.
“The capabilities that we have up here give us the chance to go out and keep our skills, keep our proficiency up,” Carey said. “We’re constantly training with other assets, training with our team, to keep our skills sharp and make sure that we’re ready to conduct a mission at any time.”
This training is paying off, too. Since arriving in August, the current rotation of 83rd ERQS combat rescue pilots and PJs have completed 149 combat sorties, saving nearly 20 lives.
“The most rewarding part of the job is to know that every day you go out and you get people (who) are in a bad situation,” Carey said. “You bring them back to a better situation and further their chances of making it home to their families.”