U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christopher Hubenthal
The USAF’s pararescuemen are among the most highly trained troops in the U.S. Armed Forces. Also known as parachute jumpers (PJs), they are qualified combat medics—their mission is to rescue and extract personnel, who are typically injured, from behind enemy lines. But PJs also receive a wide array of other training. Within the U.S. Armed Forces, PJs are considered the premier combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) unit. For inserting and carrying out rescues in hostile environments, PJs receive training in close-quarters combat (CQC), insertion methods and combat survival. PJs have also deployed to assist in civilian rescues during natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and to work with NASA to retrieve astronauts and craft that splashdown in the ocean.
WWII To Now
The Air Rescue Service was initially established in May 1946, though there had already been cases of medics parachuting in to assist injured personnel during World War II. Over the next few years, training for pararescue personnel had evolved, and by the beginning of the Korean War, each Air Rescue crew included trained PJs. By the end of the Korean War, Air Rescue personnel had rescued almost 1,000 men from behind enemy lines and evacuated over 8,000 casualties.
It was during the Vietnam War, however, that the PJs really became heralded for their successes. PJs would often be inserted into an area to load injured aircrew onto a jungle penetrator or into a harness for evacuation. At other times they might have to be inserted and find a downed pilot or crewmember while escaping and evading the enemy in enemy territory. Some rescues were carried out in North Vietnam. The PJs normally went in on Jolly Green Giant HH3 or Super Jolly Green Giant HH53 helicopters, which typically had their own minigun for support fire. These choppers were also part of a “package” that included AH-1 Cobra gunships, A-1 Skyraider “Spad” ground-support aircraft and combat air patrol, which included fast movers. As an indication of the danger faced by PJs in Vietnam, of the 19 Air Force Crosses awarded in Vietnam, ten had gone to PJs.
PJs have played a part in virtually every military action since the Vietnam War, including in the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. PJs received the Air Force Cross for actions during the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 and during the Battle of Takur Ghar in 2002. During the War on Terror, PJs have been involved in the rescues of hundreds of U.S. personnel, often in extremely hazardous conditions in the mountains of Afghanistan. Currently, PJs are assigned along with combat controllers, tactical air control parties, and special operations weathermen to Air Force Special Tactics squadrons, which can carry out an array of Air Force related special operations anywhere in the world. Two special tactics squadrons are based overseas: the 320th STS at Kadena Air Force Base, Japan, and the 321st SDS at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, UK. The 320th assisted with rescues in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
To be considered for training as a PJ, a candidate must be able to meet the following minimums on the physical ability and stamina test, or PAST (for a better chance at being selected for training, applicants should strive for even higher standards): run 1.5 miles in 9 minutes 47 seconds; swim 500 meters in 14 minutes; do 10 pull-ups in 1 minute; do 54 sit-ups in 2 minutes; do 52 pushups in 2 minutes; and do two 25-meter underwater swims with a 3-minute break in between.