CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan - Four New York City firefighters, four airmen, four friends, one team, one HH-60 Pave Hawk, one crew deployed together with the 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron to Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, and they brought a flavor unique of New York Fire Departments with them.
Capt. Shaun Cullen, Capt. Tripp Zanetis, Tech. Sgt. Erick Pound and Tech. Sgt. Jim Denniston are all members of the 101st Rescue Squadron, New York Air National Guard, and they are all firefighters when not activated. Cullen, the aircraft commander, is assigned to Engine 54, in Midtown Manhattan; Zanetis, the copilot, is assigned to Ladder 11 in Lower East Manhattan; Pound, the aerial gunner, is assigned to Engine 58 in Harlem; and Denniston, the flight engineer, is assigned to Engine 285 in Queens. Back home, they're all from a different "ladder" and a different "engine" designation, but at Camp Bastion they share one, Pedro 24.
"This is a first," Zanetis said. "An entire rescue crew made up of New York City Firefighters. We may have different jobs to do, but we all know what each other are capable of and what to expect when we fly together."
Crews are on standby around-the-clock to provide personnel recovery capabilities with medical evacuation operations in Afghanistan's Regional Command Southwest. The Pave Hawk is a highly modified version of the Black Hawk helicopter, which features specialized rescue mission equipment, including a hoist capable of lifting a 600-pound load from a hover height of 200 feet. The Pave Hawk helicopter aircrews are teamed with Air Force pararescuemen and combat rescue officers. Together they are the only Defense Department elite combat forces specifically organized, trained, equipped and postured to conduct full-spectrum personnel recovery to include conventional and unconventional combat rescue operations.
As part of the 26th ERQS, the airmen may serve many different functions, but they are all part of one crew, one team that's charged with responding to air-evacuation calls for downed Airmen, injured service members on missions outside the wire, and even humanitarian missions to aid civilians in the event they are involved in an improvised explosive device explosion or have been injured during a small-arms conflict. In the past 60 days since being deployed to Camp Bastion, they have flown more than 50 missions together as a team, and they assisted in stabilizing and extracting casualties close to double that amount.
Their relationship is forged in fire, and galvanized daily in the skies above and the mountainous terrain below in Afghanistan. From the start, they knew their experiences back home would bond them together downrange.
"From day one we gelled," said Denniston. "There's something different about firefighters. You can walk into any given situation when you're called up (on active-duty) and meet another Airman that you have never seen a day in your life and within minutes can say, 'What ladder are you on? What department?'"
Their first day as a team required them to scramble for an alert in Helmand province. The crew, carrying three Guardian Angel pararescuemen, negotiated the mountainous terrain to find their objective, civilian casualties who were the victim of an IED strike. Prior to landing, they had to quickly assess the situation before possibly entering harm's way.
"You really didn't know what to expect, it was our first day," Cullen said. "We went out in a two-ship to the site and our adrenaline started pumping...we knew there were casualties and we needed to get them out. But were insurgents laying a trap for us? There have been scenarios where they bait rescue forces in only to ambush them, and we needed to quickly assess if this was one of those instances.
"After surveying the area and the terrain enough to where we felt comfortable setting down, we began to dive at about 6,000 feet-per-minute, just slicing through the sky. It was amazing. And because we, as a team, were able to coordinate so well, something that seemed daunting went off without a hitch."
The crew admits that though their ride may be different, their attitude and drive to save lives remain the same.
"Here, we can fight our way in; we can fight our way out. We have a different platform, but we'll use our tactics to try and save anyone when called upon," Denniston said. "But just like at home, we're going in. Whether it's a massive fire with people trapped on the 16th floor back home, or a hot-zone here with IEDs and small-arms fire. We're going to go in, and we're going to do everything in our power to ensure they get out and have a chance."
At home, or in Afghanistan, they are rescue. But here, they brought a little bit of FDNY flavor to their unit. Though many Airmen assigned to the 26th ERQS are from the 101st New York ANG, only a handful are firefighters and they have a style all their own.
"We're deployed, so we know that we're not going to have the best cooking, not that it's bad, but it's definitely not like it is at home," Cullen said. "So we take the same approach from time to time that we do back home... we get everyone together to chip in and buy some food and then we'll all get together and cook it up for a big feast. It definitely brings that sense of being in a fire unit back."
The crews work around-the-clock, on 12-hour shifts. Pedro 24 is on standby for the morning missions from 1 a.m. to 1 p.m. And when they're not in the air, on a mission, they're on alert waiting to respond at a moment's notice. A 15-minute response time is the standard, but the entire 26th ERQS has blown away that mark and cut their response time to an average of 7-8 minutes, according to Zanetis. But until they hear the call "Scramble, scramble, scramble," come across the loud speaker they do what comes naturally, "bust each other's chops."
"Oh we're vicious," Pound said. "It's a lot like it is at home, 'no thin skins.' We give each other a hard time but no one takes it to heart. It's part of who we are and we know it's all in good fun, after all we're family. But if the 'scramble,' is called, we get right down to business."
The team said no one wants to necessarily hear the call to scramble. The call to scramble generally means that someone, somewhere, is badly injured. But a scramble and a save is a good day for Pedro 24.
"We don't like sitting around waiting for a call to come," said Cullen. "But we also understand that if we're needed, then someone is having a really bad day. Just like at home, if the bell sounds, it's an emergency and we have to respond quickly to save lives. We will answer that bell, that scramble-call without hesitation. That's our mission, and that's what we love."
As part of the Air National Guard, units can determine how they want to distribute deployment length. They have the option of deploying for 60 days or the full 120 days. While most of the crew will stay on for the full 120, Denniston, who was newly married in May, will be redeploying in the coming weeks to backfill an Active Guard/Reserve position at the 101st RQS back in New York, breaking up the all-NYFD firefighter team.
"I'd stay if I could, but they needed a body back home and since I don't want to be divorced already, I have to go," Denniston laughed. "But they've already anointed me the man in-charge of putting together the welcome-home party for when they join me in a couple months."