The United States Air Force is well known for aiming high, so it’s no surprise that its Pararescuemen (or “PJs”) will stop at nothing to rescue your ass when in trouble. The PJs are Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and Air Combat Command (ACC) operators tasked with recovery and medical treatment of personnel in humanitarian and active-war environments. They are expertly trained for combat, air/land/sea rescues, defense and surgical procedures, and their endurance levels are through the roof. Clearly, their job is not for everyone.
Chief Master Sergeant Paul J. Barendregt (better known as “Chief Bear”) has been serving and saving for 17 years. A Southern California native, he now resides near Anchorage, Alaska and is the leader of the PJs at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, Anchorage (aka “J-Bear”). “To me it’s a mental deal and all about problem solving,” says Chief Bear of his team’s duties. “That’s what I love about it. We have to be able to react. It can go from zero to 60. You can be sitting there doing nothing and, the next thing you know, we need to be at our best out there, saving someone when they are at their worst.”
Chief Bear says that his most challenging mission to date was in Iceland, where his team was summoned to fly to a cargo ship 300 miles out at sea in insanely nasty weather because someone had appendicitis. As the crew battled 45-foot waves, it was nearly impossible to get a PJ onboard the ship. “This was pretty near after the perfect storm,” Bear recalls. “Fortunately I had an aircraft commander who wouldn’t let me jump in the water. I tried everything to say, ‘Hey, put me in! And I’ll be able to swim up to the ship.’ It was in total darkness. We had to get down to 100 feet above the water [but because of the waves] we couldn’t get on the ship. We did a lot of soul searching and decided we had to turn around.”
As Chief Bear and his crew started to leave, they realized their fuel talk was near empty. “After about 30 minutes of prepping to ditch [the helicopter] into the middle of the Atlantic into black waters, we ended up plugging into the C-130,” Bear explains. “There is this basket that hangs behind the C-130 where you plug a probe into the front of the helicopter, and we were able to get gas while in midair and you could hear everyone singing hallelujah. We were fortunately able to get out there the next day when the seas were a little bit calmer and it was daylight.”
Anyone unfamiliar with Air Force personnel may not know the difference between Air Force Pararescuemen and the U.S. Coast Guard. “[The Coast Guard] are amazing for what they do,” says Bear. “I have a lot of respect for the Coast Guard and rescue swimmers. I’ve been through the advanced rescue course down in Astoria and gotten my ass handed to me in really big seas, and it’s pretty humbling to say the least. Those guys do a great job working off their helicopters and doing big ocean rescues. I think where [PJs] differ is that we have that same skillset but we are also paramedics. We have a medical capability. [The Coast Guard] are EMT basics where we are MT paramedics, and we have high-angle skills and parachuting skills. We just have been though more training [but] we are cut from the same kind of cloth. [The Coast Guard] get a lot more frequent calls at home then we do. They are quite amazing.”
Air Force Pararescuemen not only rescue people but also sensitive materials from crash sites. “We used to be called Aerospace Rescue and Recovery because back in the late ’70s and early ’80s we used to recover space junk,” Chief Bear explains. “These space satellites would go into orbit and collect data on foreign enemies and then come down and drop into the ocean. We would parachute in and recover that stuff. It’s part of our fiber and the fabric of who we are.”
The PJs at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson in Anchorage work in conjunction with the park service and are routinely called to rescue climbers on Denali (Mount McKinley). “I’ve actually rescued somebody off the summit before, which is kind of painful,” says Bear. “I’ve summited a couple of times and will go up and do a basic patrol, which means we will climb and also look for people that need help and help them down. We’ve done a lot of recoveries up there as well. Unfortunately, a lot of people die up there.”
When saving lives is your career, it can be difficult to single out one mission as your proudest moment. For Chief Bear, his very first mission will always stand out. “It was when I got down to Florida,” he recalls. “I was a brand new guy out of school for two months and we had a jump mission going 300 miles off the coast of Bermuda. There was a woman who was having a cardiac arrest. I was one of the first PJs to be a paramedic, so I got picked. When I jumped in, it was kind of like, ‘This is it. This is what I trained for. It’s all coming together.’ It was kind of a big deal. You don’t get very many jump missions, so I felt like that was the culmination of everything, and that mission started me off. It’s what got the hooks of Pararescue into me.” While Chief Bear made the cut, only a handful of aspiring Pararescuemen finish training. “The ones that make it never quit,” Bear notes. “They just don’t give up.”