A dry and frigid December night hosts no moon in its sky and provides little ambient light as a team of pararescuemen race to their objective area in a convoy of open-cabbed, off-road vehicles. The intel provided to them states there are several critically-injured patients stranded in a collapsed structure. As they approach the rear of the demolished building, they are greeted with a barrage of rapid gun fire from a distant origin. The pops are immediately followed by a series of nearby thumps, including occasional ear-grazing whishes attributed to dime-sized projectiles. The technical rescue specialists dismount the vehicles and work quickly to clear opposing forces from the area. They paint their targets with infrared lasers, only visible by other members in the team, and then kill off the enemy. The scene is clear, but now exists the possibility that too many precious minutes were lost during the fire fight. It’s time for the PJs to get to their patients, and then treat and transport them to safety as quickly as possible.
For the past few months, pararescuemen from the 48th Rescue Squadron out of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., have been gearing up for a deployment in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
They began with a five day tactical medical course in the pine-wooded environment of Perry, Florida, and then moved on to the culmination of their training at Razor’s Edge, a 2-week-long isolated personnel recovery exercise.
The PJs hold a unique mission in the vast spectrum of combat. They are expected to perform rescue operations in any situation and in any environment, which involves robust and high volumes of training.
"Your training should always be harder than real-world operations," said Capt. Caleb, 48th RQS combat rescue officer. "You want your team to be able to solve any problem they see because they’ve gone as far to the extreme as they can be taken in training."
This is a philosophy the PJs have embodied since the beginning of their careers as rescue specialists.
"We used the training in Florida as a foundation course for Razor’s Edge," said Staff Sgt. Ty, 48th RQS pararescueman, "So it was heavy with medical training and also heavy on trying to develop standard operating procedures."
Both the medical course and Razor’s Edge involved a variety of full-mission profiles for the team to acclimate to the cycle of planning, executing and debriefing. PJs would receive a mission drop from intelligence personnel, then plan and begin execution within one hour of the intel brief.
The missions all involved isolated personnel recovery which required clearing the area of opposing forces with the use of non-lethal training ammunition, and then stabilizing and transporting the simulated patients to a mock hospital for medical treatment.
"The training in Florida allowed these guys to take a step back and have a chance to refine their medical skills, and not focus so much on the big tasks like jumping, diving, and flying in helicopters," Caleb said. "It was meant to get them to remember the bread and butter of the career field—supporting and saving lives."
For PJs to be successful in their craft, realism is paramount during training. In order to achieve the most realistic and valuable medical training, cadavers were utilized during both courses.
"You can’t get any more realistic than cadavers," said Senior Airman Matt," 48th RQS pararescueman. "They are extremely valuable because you’re able to see how certain procedures are supposed to be carried out on human anatomy. It’s also good for the medic to see the injuries on the cadavers, because when the time comes to treat a real live patient, he won’t be surprised or taken aback because he’s already seen those injuries in training."
To add to the realism and make problems increasingly difficult to solve, sleep deprivation was added to the mix. In Florida, the PJs sustained a near 24-hour rotation of operations. Then to cap off Razor’s Edge, they kicked it up to 56 hours.
"You get to learn quite a bit about yourself after 50 hours of not sleeping," Ty said. "Everybody starts to change one way or another, good or bad. You have a moment of self-reflection to realize that when you start getting sleep deprived, you’re going to react a certain way. So I need to be ready to stay ahead of the curve to make sure the team gets taken care of."
The PJs had to practice appropriate risk management to avoid letting lack of rest be a hindering factor in their performance.
"I knew everyone was getting sleep deprived when we became more aware of each other’s condition," Matt said. "We did more safety checks—if we were doing a rappel or extrication, we took that extra minute because we realized that we haven’t been sleeping for 40 plus hours. So we made sure not to mess each other up and possibly gain a new patient just because we’re sleep deprived. We took less risks to stay healthy and safe together as a team."
To maintain their unity as a team, each individual needed to learn what kept them motivated and ready for the next mission.
"For me, I just focused on the next task at hand," Ty said. "Making sure everyone is fully prepared, whether it was checking that weapons are cleaned, ammo re-jammed, our equipment is prepped, ready to go and staged. Once all that was done, it was just trying to give guys as much time off as possible, so that everyone could have a little bit of time apart from each other. Because when you spend that much time in a group, guys are going to get on each other’s nerves. So making sure they had a few moments to themselves to decompress was really important."
During Razor’s Edge, the PJs also had the opportunity to work together in tasks with approximately 30 joint operators from the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, Naval Special Warfare Command, U.S. Army Special Forces and the Border Patrol Tactical Unit.
"The intent of integrating joint forces into Razor’s Edge was to bring in the exact teams we’re deploying with so we could build relationships and conduct operations to ultimately mitigate risk on the battlefield," Caleb said.
Unlike the pre-established rapport the PJs had among themselves, they were given approximately 30 minutes to meet and talk with the other sister-service operators before venturing out together on nighttime missions.
"It was interesting being a young guy in this career field and meeting those joint forces who had 15 years of experience on each party," Matt said. "I wasn’t completely aware of their individual experiences and they didn’t know mine, which created a bit of a gap. But it was helpful for me to see how they ran things and operated so I could gain experience from them for future missions."
Overall, the team of PJs executed 98 missions during Razor’s Edge. The exercise involved consummate coordination to ensure its pace never slowed or became easy, which was essential to providing the team with valuable training and complete readiness for their upcoming deployment.
"I felt that the opportunities we were given during this training cycle were pretty rare," Ty said. "Especially the amount of them—all the reps, the patients, everything we were able to use in order to train. Compared to my first two deployments, I feel much more spun up and ready to go for this one, and I feel like a lot of the other guys feel the same."
The exercise also helped the youngest of the PJs to establish a clear vision of what’s to come for his first time downrange, as well as solid poise.
"I’m very confident in the team, from leadership all the way down," Matt said. "We all trust the leadership because they use their experience to help out the younger guys like me. They’re always teaching us, but they also let us learn our own way as well. This is my first spin up, so I couldn’t ask for anything better to increase my confidence as a member of this team."
The team is now armed with a comprehensive skillset in order to successfully execute their core function of personnel recovery downrange.
"Ultimately what this training provided as opposed to any other training we’ve done was problem solving," Caleb said. "It gave the team every possible problem with a mix of different aspects. I think when these guys go forward, I feel like they’ll have a lot to fall back on when it comes to solving problems. Not only solving them, but solving them quickly and efficiently. I think they’ll be able to do it with minimal risk and minimum exposure to the threat and themselves."
Before Razor’s Edge officially concluded, the team invited their families to observe the exercise’s final mission.
"I wanted to bring in the families to show them the sights, sounds and smells of a realistic deployed environment," Caleb said. "The PJs are away from home about 250 to 300 days a year, so I wanted their families to see that when their husband or dad is gone, it’s all to serve a greater purpose."