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That Others May Live

An Inside Look At The 920th Rescue Wing

"THESE THINGS WE DO, THAT OTHERS MAY LIVE", it's not just a motto to the folks who serve so selflessly with the 920th Rescue Wing, it's a way of life. They are not your ordinary soldier - when the Navy SEALS are in trouble, the 920th and their elite group of pararescuemen, also known as PJ's, are who they call.

Based out of Patrick Air Force Base along Florida's Space Coast, the 920th Rescue Wing is an Air Force Reserve Command combat-search-and-rescue unit, responsible for a variety of demanding missions. Their men and women maintain a high level of proficiency, and they are ready to deploy at a moment's notice.

Recently I was given the opportunity by Captain Cathleen Snow to meet some of these brave folks. Captain Luc Chandou, a combat rescue officer in the pararescue squadron, gave us an up-close-&-personal tour of their facilities along with some detailed background on their elite squadron and what they do.

"Selfish" is not a part of their vocabulary. The PJ's are able to perform life-saving missions in the world's most remote areas - by land, sea, and air. Also known as Guardian Angel Airmen, they are the only Department Of Defense members specifically organized, trained, and equipped to conduct personnel recovery operations in hostile or denied areas as a primary mission.

"We’ve conducted a wide range of missions, from supporting rescue efforts during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, to helping a Korean sailor with acute appendicitis." said Captain Chandou. Over 1,000 victims were rescued by the 920th in the days and weeks following Katrina and Rita, and their official count is a total of 2,056 lives saved since the unit was activated in 1956.

The PJ's are among the most highly trained emergency trauma specialists in the U.S. military. Their expertise, along with their deployment capabilities, allows them to perform life-saving missions anywhere in the world, at any time. Without them, our men and women in uniform, including civilians in dire need, would have been unnecessarily lost in past conflicts and natural disasters.

In addition to combat search and rescue operations, they also provide search and rescue support for civilians at sea who are lost or in distress, as well as providing worldwide humanitarian and disaster-relief operations supporting rescue efforts in the aftermath of disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes.

The 920th also support the rocket launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, providing safety and security surveillance and providing rescue support for NASA - they have been the primary rescue force serving as 'guardians of the astronauts' for over 50 years.

As Captain Chandou walked us through various facilities, detailing the significance of everything around us and how it all aids in the PJ's carrying out their missions successfully, he never once spoke of himself or glorified the efforts of his comrades.

He did, however, make a point of telling us about William H. Pitsenbarger; the first enlisted airman posthumously awarded the nation's highest military decorations - the Medal Of Honor and the Air Force Cross. Pitsenbarger, known as "Pits" to his friends, was a PJ who gave his life aiding and defending a unit of soldiers pinned down by an enemy assault in Vietnam in 1966. He risked his life daily during the war, rescuing downed soldiers and fliers, and saved nine lives in his final hours.

Of the 22 enlisted Air Force Cross recipients, more than half are Pararescuemen. The maroon color of their beret symbolizes the blood shed by past PJs, as well as the blood current PJs are willing to shed to save lives.

Pitsenbarger's example is one Captain Chandou and his comrades strive to follow everyday, with every operation, every rescue. "We have a deep admiration and respect for Pitsenbarger – and his sacrifice," said Chandou.

The PJ's commitment to saving lives and self-sacrifice is undeniable, their commitment to helping others - both at home and abroad - is unquestionable. After spending those couple hours talking with Captain Chandou, meeting several of his comrades, and touring some of their aircraft and facilities I was left with a strong sense of gratitude and appreciation for all they do "under the radar", rarely ever being given any real publicity or fame - but then again, that's not why they do what they do.

These unsung heroes give hope to those who have lost it, to reunite families with loved ones who otherwise would have never been heard from again, to save lives and aid the injured, to put their duties before any personal desires and comforts.

They are not called Guardian Angel Airmen for no reason, they earned that title. These things they do, "that others may live".

(Mike Killian / Aerospace Florida)