JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii -- From the Vietnam Conflict to Operation New Dawn, a 39-year Air Force veteran is still jumping out of airplanes.
Chief Master Sgt. Paul Koester, the pararescue functional manager for the Battlefield Airmen Branch at Pacific Air Forces Headquarters, said he'd be a fool not to get a little nervous before jumping out of a perfectly good airplane -- despite the fact he took his first jump for the Air Force in 1975.
"I always get a little nervous, but that's what keeps me sharp," Koester explained from his sidewall seat aboard a C-17 Globemaster III flying above New Zealand's western shore Nov. 17.
Twenty minutes later he stepped off the open ramp at an altitude of nearly 9,500 feet -- alone. Koester deployed as the 517th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron jumpmaster in support of Exercise Kiwi Flag, a multilateral RNZAF-sponsored tactical airlift exercise held at Royal New Zealand Air Force Base Ohakea, New Zealand.
"There are a lot of people who try and teach others about what they do by learning from books and trying to relate that information, but Chief Koester walked the walk and talked the talk for almost 40 years," said Tech. Sgt. Steve Raethel, a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape instructor and also a jumpmaster for the 517th EAS. "The kind of experience he brings to the table is absolutely invaluable. He has no-kidding survived the kinds of incidents we're trained for, so he can pass real-life lessons gleaned from experience -- not just books -- to other people."
Koester said he was enamored with the pararescue, or PJ, mission from the moment the PJ recruiters showed up to the basic-training class, "(PJ recruiters) showed us a 16 mm movie of actual footage shot on a rescue mission over there in Vietnam, pulling a pilot out of the jungle. There was a lot of appeal for a young man to be a PJ: with the jumping, diving and flying ... the medical training of course ... 'but,' they said, 'there's one caveat: your life expectancy's only about 35 seconds on the ground,' that's the average -- that's before you end up getting whacked. But that didn't overshadow the fact that this looked like a really exciting job to me."
Koester made the cut and spent the next year and a half in training.
"In fact, we were the first pararescue class that didn't get sent directly to Vietnam," he said.
Koester spent his first tour with the 71st Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.
"Probably my best assignment because that's the one I cut my teeth on and because we were exposed to so many different things up there, climbing and skiing and all kinds of great stuff ... and it was an extremely rewarding mission," Koester explained.
Alaska proved fruitful and career-building for Koester who tallied 75 rescues, a bachelor's degree in aeronautics and he climbed North America's tallest mountain, Mount McKinley, twice: once reaching the summit and the second time returning from 17,000 feet to bring a sick teammate back to safety, setting him up for a lifetime of challenges and successes.
"I worked with (Koester) at a different multilateral exercise in 2004,” Raethel said. “He was the jumpmaster then, too ... that's when he saved probably an entire (CH-47) Chinook full of people from a disaster as a result of a heinous mistake made by a participant. One of the foreign loadmasters grabbed the reserve parachute handles as the Chinook was on the ground and actually activated the reserve chutes while the rotors were spinning. We were just loading up equipment after the jump and this loadmaster released the spring-loaded pilot chutes which shot straight up and were about to get sucked into the rotors."
Raethel said the situation could have been disastrous.
"(Then-Senior Master Sgt.) Koester was able to come up and jump on (the deployed chutes), essentially saving those in the immediate area. It's that kind of instinct that he's developed over 39 years of service that make him the legacy he is today. You don't wake up with that ... you build it."
"My current job brought me to new Zealand,” Koester said. “I was managing the taskings for jumpmasters for this exercise, which is a scarce commodity nowadays because our PJ teams are so tapped out. Our career field worldwide manning is somewhere between 56-60 percent, so we are always undermanned.
The career field will be shy yet one more PJ in just two years when Koester faces mandatory retirement.
"With less than two years left, I am forced to get out due to high year tenure,” Koester said. “Most chiefs hit high year tenure at 30 years of service, but in my case -- because I did time in the guard -- it's age-based, so by the time I hit 60 years old I have to retire."
Koester's long-standing career is on the verge of many final milestones. He had his final re-enlistment ceremony Dec. 7 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickham, Hawaii, and his last permanent change of station will take him back to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., in August.
"Sixty doesn't seem much different than 58 to me, and granted, I am in no position to be an operator anymore, but I feel I am still in a position to contribute based on my experience and all my deployments," Koester said. "I spend a lot of time staying in shape ... I work out once every day (when at home station) and twice a day when I'm deployed or TDY. I do something different every day: swim, bike, cross fit, kayak, whatever ... I mix it up a little bit to keep it interesting."
Before he hangs his uniform up for the last time, Koester continues to impart the lessons he's learned at various speaking engagements. His 39 years encompassed four wars, 650 static-line jumps, 350 free-fall jumps; three C-130 engine fires; two semi-controlled helicopter crashes; summiting North America's tallest peak; sweating out being in the crosshairs of a sniper in Afghanistan; flying into the towering plume of smoke from the Twin Towers and nearly 100 rescues. The chief summates lessons and experiences he attributes to his fellow PJs, Airmen and family - lessons he said he's learned throughout a lifetime.
"Everyone always wants to know how things have changed in 40 years ... well, that's kind of a hard question; it would take 40 years to explain. I always tell them I really enjoyed the first 10 years because we didn't have computers," he said with a grin. "... but when I came in, in '74, our troop strength was over 900,000. Granted, Vietnam was still winding down, but we have a third of that now. There's no more fluff, there's nothing left to cut, everybody is essential; and so there is no margin of error -- the stuff we used to get away with back in the day, that's a piece of history. Everyone matters and we can't afford to be losing any more people, so make sure you're doing the right thing for the right reason, in other words: be the example, not the exception."