JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - Jumping from the tail of an HC-130 into the frigid night, two elite pararescuemen of the Alaska Air National Guard felt their parachutes deploy before descending safely to frozen ground 160 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
A few hours earlier, pararescuemen Air Force Master Sgts. Roger Sparks and Brandon Stuemke were spending time with their families on what seemed to be a typical October Sunday night, when the phone rang.
On the other end was the weekend alert search-and-rescue duty officer, Air Force Maj. Russ Edwards. There was a mission request from the 11th Rescue Coordination Center and Sparks, Stuemke, and fellow alert crews from the 210th, 211th and 212th rescue squadrons were needed at work now.
"Immediately you just stop what you're doing, kiss your wife and kids and start driving to work," Sparks said. "When you're on alert status, you have to be prepared to report within 30 minutes, and so as you drive to work, you're trying to get as much info as possible."
The mission was to perform a medical evacuation of a 58-year-old woman suffering from gastrointestinal bleeding. The patient, who lived 60 miles from the nearest neighbor, was suffering from extreme dehydration and loss of blood.
Sparks and Stuemke, who've also served multiple combat search-and-rescue tours in Afghanistan, spoke on the phone with each other, discussing what they had heard and prepared themselves for the mission.
They would be flying on a 211th Rescue Squadron HC-130 King aircraft, an extended-range search-and-rescue version of the C-130 Hercules, capable of providing command and control, airdrop and air refueling to the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter.
"The plan was to load the HC-130 with the HH-60 aircrew and the two other pararescuemen, before flying them an hour north to Eielson where we had a helo on standby," Sparks said. "So we flew those guys up to that location to get in the aircraft and affect the rescue, which was another two hour flight, if not more, by helicopter to the actual recovery site. So we knew we were in for the long haul."
After dropping off the helicopter crew and other pararescuemen at Eielson Air Force Base, Sparks and Stuemke continued on the HC-130 flight to get eyes on the cabin and provide a weather report to the pilots of the Pave Hawk.
"Shortly after we dropped off the PJs and crew, we were told the Pave Hawk was malfunctioning and needed a part," Sparks said. "At this point, Edwards believed the situation warranted us getting in there as soon as possible, so he approved Stuemke and me to jump in."
The next 20 minutes, according to Sparks, was chaotic. Instead of escorting the HH-60 crew, they were now preparing to jump into an extremely remote location to save a woman's life in the middle of the night.
"Stuemke took care of half the stuff, and I took care of the other half; we met in the middle, and we left the aircraft on a 2,000-foot static line square," Sparks said. "The crews we jump with are so extremely professional and skilled. They were right on top it, deploying flares before, during and after the jump from the HC-130 to help turn the night into day."
With parachutes deployed, the pararescuemen guided themselves toward the patient's husband, an extremely skilled and charismatic trapper, according to Sparks, who was waiting for them on a frozen pond in the 27-degrees-below-zero weather.
"We landed about five feet from him," Sparks said. "When I jumped out, I had a big survival ruck, probably 60 to 70 pounds, carrying survival equipment, and Brandon jumped in all the medical equipment with enough gear to sustain us for a few days."
Sparks checked in with the HC-130 crew to let them know they were safe on the ground and Stuemke followed the trapper to assess his wife.
"We immediately knew the gravity of the situation," Sparks said. "Her situation was very dire."
Stuemke conducted a patient assessment, asked questions about her background and previous medical conditions, then started an IV and medication to help stop the nausea, dehydration and gastrointestinal bleeding.
"We were very concerned and started talking with the RCC via satellite phone to find out when we could get air evacuation out of such a remote location," Stuemke said. "We were prepared, but being a parachute operation, we can only jump in a certain amount of supplies and she needed to get to a doctor soon."
Hundreds of miles from a hospital, Stuemke and Sparks continued to monitor, re-assess and build a long-term game plan for the health of their patient to include getting more medication and an IV dropped in if needed. They knew that without serious medical support, their patient was in a life-threatening situation.
"The RCC was looking at other options to get helicopters out of Fort Wainwright, whether it's a CH-47 (Chinook) or UH-60 (Black Hawk)" Stuemke said. "Fortunately, the part required for the Pave Hawk arrived and the 210th was able to come pick us up later the next day."
After an 18-hour delay, continuously monitoring and providing care to their patient, Sparks and Stuemke welcomed the helicopter crew to the remote cabin, loaded the patient and accompanied her on the two-hour flight to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, where she was released to hospital staff.
"There's something in a selfless act of putting yourself in danger and putting your life on the line to help others so that they can survive and have a future," Stuemke said. "We get paid to go and make the best of bad situations, but it takes all of us to accomplish a mission. The RCC, the pilots, maintenance crews, everyone - it's a total team concept. It's not about one individual, it's about everybody."
"Brandon and I have been here in Alaska for years together, and we've done some really bizarre, if not dangerous things through this job, even somewhat unexplainable," Sparks said. "We're a bit inoculated to it, but at night, we do sit and think about the gravity and intensity of things we are asked to do; it's just always in hindsight. Still, I do it because I think it's a very virtuous job. To use these skills to save other human beings, I think it gives back to you quite a bit."