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NEWS | June 10, 2011

Alaska National Guard “Guardian Angels” save 107 in Afghanistan

By Air Force Maj. Guy Hayes Alaska National Guard

CAMP DENALI, Alaska - Guard members from the Alaska Air National Guard’s 212th Rescue Squadron recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan where they are credited with saving 107 lives during combat search and rescue missions.

The unit deployed for eight months, with individual Guardmembers supporting the deployment in two to four month intervals.

“Just about everybody in the unit had the chance to deploy, and they represented the Alaska Air National Guard very well,” said Air Force Maj. Joe Conroy, 212th Rescue Squadron director of operations, Alaska Air National Guard.

The Guard members were on alert 24/7, ready to respond and prepared in part because of the training they receive while providing medical support annually throughout Alaska.

“We have a lot of patient contact in Alaska and that helps with dealing with people’s injuries.” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Chris Uriarte, pararescuemen, 212th Rescue Squadron, Alaska Air National Guard. “The medical portion translates well.”

“Here in Alaska we are always on alert, and that’s definitely a benefit when you’re deployed because you need to be ready and prepared to provide support when the call comes in,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Bill Cenna, pararescuemen, 212th Rescue Squadron, Alaska Air National Guard.

Throughout the course of the eight month deployment, the men of the 212th Rescue Squadron spent their time transferring patients between medical facilities and engaged in the fight providing support on the heat of the battlefield.

“In addition to standing alert or pulling patient transfer, we were also tasked to support specific Army operations,” Uriarte said. “It got a little sporty during those events.”

Cenna added, “It allowed us to be closer to the fight and have a launch time of two minutes instead of 35 minutes. It makes a big difference when you’re that close and are able to provide immediate support to the troops on the ground.”

One mission in particular occurred April 23 when Cenna, Uriarte and three other Guardian Angels – Air Force Maj. Jesse Peterson, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shane Hargis and Air Force Staff Sgt. Zachary Kline – were involved directly in a fight trying to save the lives of two downed Army aviators.

“We were the closest asset when an Army helicopter went down,” Uriarte said.

Uriarte was onboard one of two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters flown by aircrew from the 33rd Rescue Squadron from Kadena Air Base, Japan. He was on the lead aircraft that went in to retrieve two downed aviators during a barrage of incoming fire.

“We went in, put a three-man team on the ground and found the two aviators were split-up,” Uriarte said. “We sent our second two-man team over to the wreckage where the second guy was located to pick him up. It ended up being a pretty long stay on the ground for the guys at the crash site.”

Cenna was part of the two-man team on the second HH-60 Pave Hawk sent in to provide support to the downed pilot at the crash site. He and Kline hoisted down 180 feet, much higher than their standard descents because of the mountainous terrain.

Peterson, Uriarte and Hargis were able to rescue the first aviator, hoisting back into the HH-60 to support Cenna and Kline as long as they could before returning to base to swap out for a fresh crew.

Meanwhile Cenna and Kline had to traverse about 55 yards to get to the crash site, unfortunately discovering the pilot had already died. They immediately prepared to have the fallen hero hoisted up to the Pave Hawk.

“The helo was taking rounds, and one of the flight engineers was hit in the leg. He was bleeding pretty badly, so they returned to base, and we stayed in the area because we didn’t have the means to exfil immediately,” Cenna said.

The pair spent five more hours in the middle of a fire fight while on the ground with the fallen hero, taking cover to avoid becoming casualties themselves and calling in close air support to strike the enemy, who continued to fire on their position.

“We were taking cover and trying to locate where rounds were coming from to direct air support onto it,” Cenna said. “Aircraft kept trying to retrieve us, but they kept getting shot at.”

Kline called in close air support and it came in the form of Apaches, A-10s and other aircraft, which engaged targets right on top of their position.

After hours of continued fighting and dodging bullets, a Pave Hawk was finally able to get back in and hoist the hero, Cenna, and Kline off the wreckage and back to base for a mission debrief of the day’s activities.

It was a significant event they’d lived through, but 12 hours later, they were back on duty providing the same support in hopes they could save another life.

They were living the creed they all agreed to when they became pararescuemen. A creed that means putting others before yourself: "It is my duty as a pararescueman to save lives and to aid the injured. I will be prepared at all times to perform my assigned duties quickly and efficiently, placing these duties before personal desires and comforts. These things I do, that others may live."

“Imagine telling a fellow service member that you can't come get them out of harm’s way because you're tired or better yet, imagine explaining that to their kids,” Uriarte said. “Not a chance.”

The members of the Alaska Air National Guard’s 212th Rescue Squadron deployed to Afghanistan August 2010 and returned May 2011.

 

 

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