NEW YORK – Wearing shorts and a T-shirt, with stubble on his chin, Tech. Sgt. Jamie Brisbin, a pararescueman now assigned to the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing, remembers arriving in Okinawa, Japan, and boarding a waiting C-130 to head to a flooded cave in Thailand June 27, 2018.
As depicted in the Amazon Prime film “Thirteen Lives,” a Thai soccer team of 12 boys aged 11 to 16 and their 25-year-old coach were exploring Tham Luang Cave when monsoon rains caused it to flood and trap them.
At the time, Brisbin was a pararescueman with the 31st Rescue Squadron at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.
Brisbin and Lt. Col. Stephen Rush, a flight surgeon commanding the 106th Medical Group, were among the U.S. military personnel who helped make the dramatic rescue possible.
After arriving at the mouth of the cave at 2 a.m. June 28, with 30 other Airmen assigned to the 353rd Special Operations Group, Brisbin asked to be taken to the farthest part of the cave accessible without diving to determine the terrain.
It was immediately evident this was a chaotic, constantly changing situation that did not look good, Brisbin said.
“A lot of times, it’s a strong possibility that you’re doing a body recovery, you’re not doing a rescue,” Brisbin said.
But when a team of British cave divers discovered the boys 2.5 miles into the cave, things looked better, Brisbin recalled.
“But finally, they found all these kids, miraculously still alive after nine days with no food, no light and contaminated water. That was a critical turning point for us,” he said.
With nine chambers between the patients and the cave exit, it would take extensive planning and focus to evacuate the children safely.
On July 4, 2018, halfway around the world, Rush received a phone call from Master Sgt. Derek Anderson in Thailand. Anderson, the senior enlisted leader on the rescue mission, was calling for Rush’s input and expertise.
Rush was the highest-ranking military medical resource involved for the Americans.
He was able to tap into his network of medical and diving experts across the nation to help determine strategies to rescue the children.
With input from a pediatric anesthesiologist who was an Air Force flight surgeon, the New York City fire department dive team commander and his medical experience and knowledge of pararescue operations, Rush offered critical advice on how to proceed.
Most of the children could not swim and were weakened due to a lack of food and clean water. It was decided the patients would be sedated for extraction from the cave.
Keeping the patients sedated reduced the chance of something going wrong should a child panic underwater, such as a patient’s scuba mask getting dislodged.
Plastic stretchers were also used, allowing the kids to be hooked to ropes and pulleys to traverse vertical rescue-type conditions throughout the labyrinth of the cave.
The Thai leadership on site wanted to know the United States supported launching the mission, Rush said.
Rush provided that assurance.
Everything had to be planned in precise detail, and every person knew exactly what area of the cave they were going to be working in, Brisbin recalled.
As an avid cave diver outside the military, Brisbin was one of a very small group capable of accomplishing the task.
As the pararescueman with the most cave diving expertise, Brisbin fully understood the risks the team was taking to save these children and their coach.
Divers were stationed at the nine cave chambers that lay between life and death for the soccer team. Brisbin was between chambers two and three, near the cave’s opening.
He and Tech. Sgt. John Merchand, a fellow 31st Rescue Squadron pararescueman, were in a partially submerged narrow tunnel approximately 2 feet wide and 100 to 150 feet long. Their task was to move the boys from chamber three to two with zero visibility.
With 13 divers stationed at the chambers in the cave, it took approximately nine hours to lead four boys per day to safety, Brisbin recalled.
Over 90 divers from around the world were stationed throughout the cave to perform medical checkups and resupply air tanks.
Rush advised that pediatric anesthesiologists or pediatric emergency physicians meet the patients when they emerged from the cave to provide advanced resuscitation capabilities if needed.
“I can’t emphasize enough that there are a handful of people in the world like PJs who can support a rescue like this,” Rush said.
“There is literally only one organization in the world that trains to this level as rescue specialists, that can do this totality of rescue specialized operations, and it is an honor for me to support these guys. They are amazing human beings,” he said.
After 18 days and an arduous three-day extraction, all 13 team members were rescued.
“I feel really proud that I was chosen. That my leadership thought, ‘Bring this guy, he’s going to help make a difference,’” Brisbin said. “I also have a lot of pride in just being a part of this community.”