‘Don’t quit’ and other lessons from a legendary Air Force PJ’s 26-year career
“It’s like these things that I did wrong, or at least I messed up, the comical moments are really the only things that I remember.”
Air Force pararescuemen have braved enemy fire and natural disasters to save troops and civilians in great danger for decades. Uncommon valor becomes a common virtue among a crowd with that kind of mindset, which is why it’s all the more noteworthy that one pararescueman retiring this fall after a 26-year career earned the title of ‘legendary’ from other members of the PJ community.
“Yesterday we said farewell to Air Force legendary pararescueman Chief Master Sgt. Ivan Ruiz,” wrote the Pararescue Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the pararescue community and their families, in a Facebook post last month.
“He’s always been about the team and for the men, never for the rank and the accompanying politics…just hacking the PJ mission (and he got many),” the Foundation wrote in the post highlighting a retirement event held to recognize Ruiz’ work.
Ruiz’ most famous accomplishment (so far) took place on Dec. 10, 2013, when he stood out in the open in a courtyard of a compound in Afghanistan, taking fire from Taliban fighters so that they would not shoot his wounded comrades lying nearby. After other team members joined in the fray, Ruiz treated the wounded service members who survived the raid. The PJ received the Air Force Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor in prestige for airmen and Space Force guardians.
As brave and selfless as that act was, it was only one moment in Ruiz’s long career, which he took the time to discuss with Task & Purpose last month.
‘I had absolutely no excuse’
Believe it or not, becoming a pararescueman was not what Ruiz had in mind when he was a sophomore in high school growing up in San Antonio, Texas. At first, he wanted to become an Army Ranger, but a neighborhood friend named David who was going through the pararescue indoctrination course at nearby Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland changed that. When David came home for weekends, he told Ruiz about the physical and mental challenge of becoming one of the best combat medics on the planet.
“He told me how difficult the course was and how many people failed and how it was supposed to be one of the most difficult schools in the [Department of Defense],” Ruiz recalled. “That alone – if it’s one of the most difficult schools, that’s what I want to try to do.”
Ruiz enlisted in the Air Force right after graduating from high school in 1996. Joining pararescue was just as difficult as David described: in fact, Ruiz didn’t make it through the initial pararescue indoctrination course the first time.
“I just didn’t have the determination,” he said. “I say that because I’ve seen 17, 18-year-old kids graduate the course. So I had absolutely no excuse.”
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Looking back though, Ruiz said it was a good thing he didn’t make it the first time around, firstly because he “didn’t deserve it,” and secondly because he became a Tactical Air Control Party specialist for the next two years (TACPs embed with frontline Army and Marine Corps units to call in air strikes in combat). Ruiz made many close friends and enjoyed his time as a TACP, but in 1998 it was time to give pararescue another shot. He made it through this round and just in time, because Air Force pararescue and the entire U.S. special operations community was about to get very busy.
‘A Wild West feel’
In December 2001, Ruiz deployed to Afghanistan in response to the September 11 terror attacks. For a young special operator avenging an attack on American citizens in the early stage of a war dominated by special operations forces, it was also a dream come true.
“It was this huge reunion, you know? It was amazing to see all my peers doing incredible things. In the middle of this war zone,” he said. “In the middle of the night I’d bump into a buddy I went to dive school with. And it happened every day, you were just seeing guys you loved and went through all this training with.”
The sprawling U.S. bases with dining facilities, showers, gyms, and accompanying brass that would appear later in the war were yet to arrive, giving the operating environment “a Wild West feel,” Ruiz said, and his own missions could be just as unpredictable. In fact, the PJ’s very first mission was not with an American unit, but with a Danish special operations team who needed a rope master as they fast-roped out of a helicopter onto a mountaintop.
“That was the first thing I did which was just crazy to me. I was this kid and this is the very first thing I’m doing, you know?” Ruiz said. “To this day it was such a surreal event.”
It would be far from the only surreal event, as the young PJ soon discovered.
‘What the fuck are these guys doing?’
Just a few years later, Ruiz found himself at the tip of the spear in another country: Iraq. The PJ and his team landed at Bashur airfield, north of the Iraqi city Erbil, a full week before the main U.S. invasion started in March, 2003. The special operators had secured the airfield, but the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade apparently did not get the memo, because in a few days they did a full combat airdrop over the team’s heads.
“We got to watch this massive combat drop while sitting in lawn chairs, watching these guys jump into combat,” Ruiz recalled.
Like in Afghanistan, some of Ruiz’s most prominent memories have less to do with combat and more to do with seeing close buddies in unexpected places. One mission tasked the PJ and a combat search-and-rescue crew with recovering a Navy SEAL team from a dam just north of Baghdad. Ruiz was surprised to find that the rear gunner on the CH-53 helicopter taking him to the dam was an airman named Danny who had been a TACP with him back in the day.
“It was really cool because we’d trained together and now we were together pretty much every day providing CSAR,” he said.
Lo and behold, when the helicopter landed at the dam to pick up the SEAL team, Ruiz found that the Air Force combat controller embedded with the SEALs had also served as a TACP with him and Danny. That’s part of the nature of the Air Force special warfare community, Ruiz said: it is so small that you are bound to run into someone you know.
“We picked this team up and Tony [the controller] gets on board and I’m like ‘oh crap!’” the PJ recalled. “I’m so excited to see somebody that I know that we’re giving each other a hug, but we also are trying to get out of there. Meanwhile, Danny’s in the back firing off his .50 cal, but as soon as he’s done he looks over and he’s like ‘Tony!’ Now they’re hugging and meanwhile these SEALs are like ‘what the fuck are these guys doing?’”
As the years went by and the deployments added up, Ruiz, once the young guy on his first mission, was now mentoring younger PJs on their first missions and deployments.
“My entire career, just seeing my peers and younger guys doing great things, it was really the most rewarding part about being deployed,” he said.
“It was like a cartoon”
By Dec. 10, 2013, then-Master Sgt. Ruiz was a seasoned pararescueman who had served around the world. In the predawn darkness that morning, he and a team of Army Special Forces and Afghan commandos were charged with raiding a heavily-fortified compound in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. It didn’t take long for the raiders to come under fire.
“The compound they chose to be in was a really good compound to defend,” he said.
The assault force split up, and Ruiz and two of his teammates — a Green Beret, and an EOD tech — eventually fought their way through a courtyard within the compound. At one point Ruiz got “a bad feeling” from a hut and aimed his carbine at it seconds before an armed Taliban fighter emerged from within, he told Air & Space Forces Magazine in 2015.
Ruiz shot the fighter, but shortly afterward his two teammates both went down in front of him, and soon Taliban fighters were shooting at the PJ from both in front and behind. Instead of finding cover, Ruiz remained in the open in order to draw enemy fire away from the wounded Green Beret and EOD tech while doing his best to suppress them single-handedly.
“Drawing fire from the enemy and returning fire to prevent the insurgents from maneuvering, he was gradually driven into a prone fighting position by the sheer volume of enemy fire,” reads the PJs Air Force Cross citation. “His refusal to leave the courtyard prevented enemy fighters from engaging his wounded teammates with direct fire weapons, though enemy grenades impacted within five meters of Sergeant Ruiz’s position.”
The other Green Berets soon joined the fray, turned the tide against the Taliban and helped Ruiz pull their wounded comrades behind cover. The two wounded soldiers were both medevaced and survived their injuries, and together the assault force killed 13 Taliban fighters, disabled improvised explosive devices and captured a large weapons cache and communications devices, Ruiz said in 2015.
The PJ’s actions that day may strike many people as a superhuman act of courage. But nine years and countless news articles later, Ruiz’s own memory of events is more complicated.
“If I don’t go back and read my personal after-action report, I couldn’t tell you what happened,” he said. “Because I’ve heard so many different versions at this point I don’t know what’s true. And to tell you the truth, everybody else’s version is way cooler than what really happened.”
For most of the battle, Ruiz’s training was in control, and looking back it is difficult for him to pick out individual moments from the fight. But the few snapshots that Ruiz does remember clearly were the flashes of embarrassment he felt over things he thought he could have done better. For example, when the PJ was in the open, drawing fire from his wounded comrades, he was calling on the radio for reinforcements to suppress the enemy so he could get to his patients.
“These are typical tactics,” he said. “In my mind, I’m doing what I have to do, I’m working.”
But apparently, he was working a little too hard.
“Then all of a sudden I get a call back on the radio, and it’s my team sergeant, and he’s like ‘Ivan, stop yelling on the radio,’” the PJ said. “So immediately, in that split-second snapshot where I have time to think, I’m completely embarrassed. I’m supposed to be an operator, I’m supposed to be able to keep my cool, and in my head I thought I was, but all of a sudden I get this critique so now I’m embarrassed.”
Keep in mind that the world of special operations is one that only the highest performers access. Just to become an Air Force pararescueman or combat controller, an airman must pass through one of the most difficult training pipelines on the planet. For those who make it, the pressure to perform remains high, since oftentimes PJs or CCTs are the sole Air Force representative on a team of Green Berets, SEALs, or other elite operators.
“[I]f you make a mistake, everybody points the finger at you alone,” Dan Schilling, a retired combat controller, told Task & Purpose in 2021. “It’s why our standards are so high, and that’s why the burden is so heavy.”
In the middle of a fight for his life, Ruiz recalled whispering for reinforcements after the critique from the team sergeant.
“It’s this comical situation,” he said. “But that only lasts for half a second. All those emotions happen instantly and then you push play and you gotta keep going.”
There were a few more embarrassing memories that you might not expect a war hero to have. Ruiz recalled that while he was dragging one of the wounded Green Berets to cover, he tripped headfirst into a bush, a bush so thick he couldn’t get out by himself.
“It was like a cartoon, my feet are in the air dangling,” the PJ said. “These two guys help me get out of the bush and when I came out I dislocated three fingers.”
Ruiz looked at his injured fingers and showed them to a buddy, who grabbed them and popped them back in place.
“I’m like ‘ah!’ and then I’m like ‘okay go, let’s go,’” the airman recalled. “It’s like these things that I did wrong, or at least I messed up, the comical moments are really the only things that I remember.”
There was one more snapshot which at the time seemed grim but has since sprouted funny wings. There was only one small space in the courtyard that provided cover from the ongoing firefight. To get there, Ruiz had to drag one of the injured soldiers over the bodies of three dead Taliban fighters who were killed earlier in the fight. Ruiz did what he had to do, treated the soldier and he was evacuated. It was only afterward, when the PJ and the rest of the assault team got back from the raid and visited the wounded soldier in the hospital, that Ruiz learned what the drag was like from his patient’s perspective.
“He’s like ‘man, I thought I was going to die because I thought you were putting me into an expected pile,’ and I was going to leave him there with these three dead guys,” the PJ recalled. “As soon as he said that I felt horrible. Like, ‘I didn’t even think about that, I’m so sorry.’”
If people saw that scene in a movie, Ruiz figured, “we would die laughing,” and now that he looks back on it, he thinks it’s hilarious. But at the time, it was another embarrassing mistake to think about.
“Once again, the things I think about are things I did wrong, things I would change,” he said.
Overall, Ruiz was proud of what he accomplished on the mission. When he looks back on it, he remembers he used the right tactics and did his job as a pararescueman and as an airman under fire. The Air Force seems to agree.
“Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, Sergeant Ruiz reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force,” read his citation.
That mission in Afghanistan was far from the end of Ruiz’s career. The PJ went on to deploy to northern Iraq multiple times in the fight against ISIS, as well as to Djibouti and the Horn of Africa. As a chief master sergeant, Ruiz has achieved the highest enlisted rank in the Air Force. Reaching ‘chief’ is a high honor, but it also means he has not been allowed to operate or support deployments as much as he’d like. That, plus all the time away from his family and kids, made Ruiz decide to call it a day after nearly three decades of service.
“I’ve been super blessed,” he said. “I’ve been so fortunate to come across these mentors that have influenced me to take certain paths and become a better person. I’ve been surrounded by amazing people, and I’ve done so many amazing things with them. It’s been a dream. I’m going to miss it.”
The feeling from his buddies seems to be mutual. In an Instagram post, the Pararescue Foundation and Ones Ready, a podcast hosted by Air Force special warfare veterans, the organizations described Ruiz as one of those people who make “a life-changing impact” on others.
“For the pararescue career field, he has helped define what a PJ is supposed to be,” the post said. “He’s shaped current PJs at units, he’s mentored the rescue and the special tactics community, and he’s been there for each of his brothers and sisters in arms when they need him … he’s leaving a massive hole in the Air Force special warfare community and he will be missed.”
What hard-won advice does Ruiz have for the next generation after such a long career? Not much, but it’s effective.
“Don’t quit,” he said. “That’s it.”
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