AFGHANISTAN - When 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawks "scramble" for a casualty evacuation mission, the environment they are flying into is unpredictable.
Whether the environment is hostile or not, they always prepare for the worst — that's where Senior Airman Austin Stoker comes in.
The 26th ERQS munitions systems specialist ensures the birds have the resources to fight if they have to.
"You have to be able to go into a combat area where people are dying and pull them out, and you need firepower to do it," Stoker said. "Without it there is no rescue and the crew isn't coming back."
Deployed from the California National Guard's 129th Rescue Wing, Moffett Federal Airfield, Calif., Stoker and the 26th ERQS aircrew, maintenance and support teams augment a highly visible and important medical evacuation mission in Regional Command Southwest.
When called upon for a CASEVAC, Air Force Guardian Angel pararescuemen, combat rescue officers, crew chiefs and gunners scramble to HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters. This is the "Pedro" mission, and when they're requested, it usually means a member of the coalition is injured and in need of lifesaving assistance.
Lt. Col. George Dona, 26th ERQS commander, said without all the parts of the mission working, "...The crews can't fly, the helicopters won't work, and the guns won't shoot. I need all of this to come together and I need it to come together on a moment's notice."
Dona said that so far, the support teams have delivered.
"They have more than just met the challenge, but they have far exceeded the expectations that I had for the squadron," he said.
Stoker's role in the mission is important in ensuring the crews can defend themselves with the ammo he maintains and provides.
"Our mission is to provide munitions support, from the smallest rounds to grenades, .50 [caliber machine guns] and countermeasure flares used to keep the aircraft from being shot out of the skies," Stoker, a Stockton, Calif., native said.
Countermeasure flares play a big role in the mission because they are able to deflect projectiles from hitting the aircraft by means of an onboard detection system. A downed aircraft is disastrous, placing the rescue squadron members in need of rescue themselves.
Stoker said successful countermeasures are sometimes the only thing that ensures a crew makes it back from a rescue mission.
His daily duties include maintenance on ammo systems, weapons compatibility checks, and inventory on ammo stockpiles and expended rounds.
Maintaining an inventory is a large part of Stoker's job because the Air Force tracks 100 percent of its ammo.
"Every bullet is accounted for," he said. "If you shoot a bullet, you better have a reason."
After transitioning from active duty service to the Guard in 2011, Stoker joined the 129th RW with hopes to deploy more often.
He said he has a strong respect for the rescue mission here, and for his coworkers.
"The pararescue mission is so dynamic," he said. "The lives that they save, the humanitarian missions that they do, and just being a part of it all makes me feel very good about my day-to-day service."