Elite Air Force team goes through paces



Elite Air Force team goes through paces

Gazette Wyoming Bureau
LOVELL - A Big Horn County ranch stood in for the rugged terrain of Afghanistan as members of a U.S. Air Force pararescue team trained for combat search-and-rescue operations last week.

The unusual sight of low-flying planes and armed men dangling from parachutes suggested a small-scale invasion, but it was one welcomed by about 25 spectators who turned out to watch the training.

It was a local connection that brought more than 50 airmen from the 38th Rescue Squadron at Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Ga.

Staff Sgt. Ryan Wilkerson, a Lovell native and a five-year Air Force veteran, suggested the area as a training ground and volunteered the family ranch as a central staging point for the five days of operations. Lt. Col. Terry Johnson, who commanded the week's training, said the Wilkerson ranch and adjacent Bureau of Land Management tracts offered thousands of remote, unpopulated acres close to a helpful community.

"Everyone here has been tremendously supportive of us, from all the local people to the BLM, the Greybull airport, everybody," Johnson said.

Training focused on a scenario that simulated rescue operations involving one reconnaissance team and two recovery teams, typically operating in small units of around four people each.

"They have to stay hidden while providing good communications," Johnson said of rescue teams, which were equipped with radios and satellite-linked e-mail systems.

While real missions occur at night, the daylight training offered the team members, or PJs, and support personnel a chance to test strategies, tactics and equipment in unfamiliar territory.

Wilkerson said the open hills around Lovell were a welcome change from training in the flat, dense pine forests of Georgia.

A specialist in Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training, Wilkerson teaches SERE skills to airmen who might find themselves trapped in hostile territory.

Wilkerson and others, including Staff Sgt. Justin McCaffrey, helped create the training scenarios, which included dropping a four-man rescue team, two dirt bikes and two 4-wheeled all-terrain vehicles from a C-130 cargo plane.

McCaffrey said PJs and their gear dropped from around 800 feet during training but could parachute from as low as 400 feet in an actual mission.

PJs also executed one high-altitude jump last week.

McCaffrey said that at other times, they train for extreme weather conditions, water rescues and other scenarios, making them some of the most versatile elite soldiers in the military.

"There are a lot of things they can do. They're all certified paramedics. Anybody who is in trouble and needs help getting out, these guys have the training to go in and get them," McCaffrey said.

During one morning jump, the PJs worked in silence after landing a few hundred yards from their dirt bikes and ATVs, gathering their gear before moving to unpack the vehicles that had been crated for the drop.

One ATV landed on its side, and one dirt bike suffered bent handlebars in the drop and had to be left behind.

"That's good for them," Wilkerson said with a smile. "They probably want us to fix it, but I think maybe they'll have to see what it's like to adapt without it."

McCaffrey said the week's scenarios would be challenging and might involve a few surprises that could prove unpopular with the PJs. He was happy to give his colleague the credit.

"This here was all Wilkerson," McCaffrey said, gesturing at the expansive training territory. "It just came out of his brain, and they're going to hate him for it."

Some airmen got a taste of ranch life during an April planning trip to Lovell and ended up helping with spring branding on the Wilkerson ranch.

Wilkerson said Moody commanders were pleased with the support they had received from Lovell residents and were planning future training missions in the area, including a possible trip into the Pryor Mountains.

"It's really nice to be able to get back up here and enjoy the big skies. Georgia makes me claustrophobic," Wilkerson said.

Got a vid from it (I think):

[ame="http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=1020087032"]MySpaceTV Videos: Pararescue by Alister Fyreheart[/ame]