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Air Force PJs saved dozens of lives across the country last week

Airmen who responded to catastrophic flooding in Kentucky included helicopter pilots, pararescuemen, and one responder who was not even human.
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An Airman from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron search for flood victims from a helicopter in Eastern Kentucky on July 30, 2022. (Staff Sgt. Clayton Wear / U.S. Air National Guard)

The U.S. military trains to win wars, but many service members often put themselves in harm’s way even during relatively peaceful times. That’s the case for the Air Force pararescue and combat controller communities, who saved the lives of dozens of Americans endangered by plane crashes and flooding in Alaska and Kentucky last week alone. 

“Unique to the [National] Guard, we aren’t just preparing for war, we are preparing for domestic operations too,” Master Sgt. Joshua Busch, a combat controller with the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, said in a recent Air Force press release. Busch’s squadron rescued 19 stranded residents and two dogs last week amid historic flooding in eastern Kentucky last week.

“I’m most proud of how many guys volunteered to be a part of this mission, to help the community and state start to put this natural disaster behind us,” said Busch, who served as a rescue and recovery team leader for the flood response.

Service members aboard a UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter respond to flooding in Eastern Kentucky, July 30, 2022. (Staff Sgt. Clayton Wear/U.S. Air National Guard)

Meanwhile, about 3,000 miles northwest of the floods, pararescuemen with the Alaska Air National Guard saved three people from two plane crashes in the same day. The first crash occurred about 70 miles south of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, while the second occurred just under 100 miles west of Anchorage. In both cases, the locally-based 176th Wing dispatched helicopters to move quickly to the crash sites and help those in need. Responding to plane crashes is actually somewhat common for airmen in Alaska, where planes are often the primary mode of travel above the state’s vast wilderness. Airmen helped rescue five people injured in a plane crash in March, and two more earlier in July.

Responding to plane crashes or major floods is not too different from what these airmen train to do in war. Also called ‘PJs,’ Air Force pararescuemen are elite specialists in search and rescue and combat medicine who train to rescue downed pilots or special operators cut off behind enemy lines. In Kentucky, the rescue efforts also included combat controllers, highly-trained airmen who accompany Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other elite units on special operations missions, where they provide expert air traffic management to call in air support or set up landing zones. Like with many combat missions, the members of the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron were ready to answer the call when floodwaters submerged much of their state.

“We found out about the situation Thursday morning at approximately 8:10 a.m.,” said the squadron commander, Maj. Ian Williams, in the press release. “Before we had our tasking to respond, we started having our initial team show up to the squadron to prepare gear in the event that we would have to push out and support.”

The squadron was officially told to support relief efforts around 9 a.m., but since they had already started preparing, the initial team was “out the door by 10 o’clock,” Williams said.

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Of the 24 squadron members who were initially sent out that day, one was not a combat controller, a pararescueman, or even a human. Instead, it was a five-year-old Dutch shepherd named Callie, who also happens to be the military’s only certified search-and-rescue dog. Callie and her handler, a PJ named Master Sgt. Rudy Parsons, are trained to search for people who may be missing in the wreckage of a natural or manmade disaster.

“Local, state and federal agencies all have search and rescue dogs, but what we bring to the table is the ability to get a dog, with its incredible capabilities, to normally inaccessible locations potentially faster,” Parsons said in a press release. Unlike some of her fellow canines in non-special operations organizations, Callie can also travel via helicopter, boat, rope systems and even via parachute, which can help “where minutes matter,” Parsons said.

military working dog
Callie, a search and rescue dog for the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, participates in Patriot North, an annual domestic operations exercise designed to provide natural disaster-response training at Volk Field, Wis., July 17, 2019. (Staff Sgt. Joshua Horton/U.S. Air National Guard)

Though the goal is to find people while they are still alive, Callie is also immensely helpful for finding victims of a disaster, like the 35 people who are estimated to have died from the Kentucky floods so far.

Callie “did a great job of telling us specific locations to investigate more thoroughly to recover fatalities, to help bring closure to those individuals’ families,” Parsons said.

Beyond the 35 people already confirmed to have died, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said on Monday that the number of people missing is in the hundreds, according to local news station WKYT. More than 12,000 people are without power, Beshear said, though that’s down from more than 24,000 at the peak of the flooding.

“We have hundreds of millions of dollars of damage, hundreds of people displaced, but we are moving and moving fast,” he said, according to WKYT.

With so many people still missing, it stands to reason that the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron will keep looking for them for some time. Master Sgt. Phil Speck, a spokesperson for the Kentucky-based 123rd Airlift Wing, said the unit’s special tactics airmen worked upwards of 14-15 hours a day last week as they helped respond to flooding. A team of 23 special operators plus Callie coordinated 29 rotary aircraft missions, recovered four bodies and helped direct operations that led to the rescue or assistance of 40 additional people, according to the press release.

An aerial view of flooding in eastern Kentucky in late July, 2022. (U.S. Air Force)

Though special tactics airmen played a large role in the relief efforts, other organizations like the Kentucky Army National Guard’s 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade, the Kentucky State Police, and Army National Guard troops from Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia also sent aircraft, soldiers and other responders to help, along with civilian agencies and volunteer groups.

“I think everyone down here has made a difference, there are countless rescue crews down here right now still looking still trying to help everybody,” Curtiss Peaytt, a critical care flight paramedic for the West Virginia National Guard, told West Virginia news station WSAZ on Friday.

“Our success at the 123rd STS wouldn’t be possible without our mission support folks,” said Williams, the Kentucky special tactics squadron commander. “They’re the first to arrive at the unit when something happens because they know that the vehicles, boats, communications equipment and resupply coordination are make-or-break elements of this sort of mission.”

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