Under the Radar

Go 'Inside Combat Rescue'

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Inside Combat Rescue is a six-part series premiering on the National Geographic Channel next Monday February 18th at 10PM. The show chronicles an Afghanistan deployment for the Pararescuemen (a/k/a Para Jumpers a/k/a PJs), an elite Air Force Combat Rescue unit whose mission it is to extract and provide medical assistance to U.S. forces and our allies who are injured in combat.

The show's producers have outfitted the PJs with cutting edge micro cameras attached to their chests, helmets and also strategically placed the flash drive cameras in locations the helicopters that fly the unit on its missions. What they've captured are detailed and realistic visions of combat missions that far surpass anything the public has seen before.

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At least in the episodes we've seen so far, the producers of Inside Combat Rescue are smart enough to realize how amazing this footage looks and that they don't need to fall back on the conventions of reality television to create the drama. The interview segments give a good sense of the unit's individual personalities, but no one's trying to use confession and artificial drama to cover up the fact that whatever the show's supposed to be about is actually pretty boring. Flying into combat to rescue badly injured troops is a lot different from antique hunting or storage locker auctions (or even ice road trucking), so the producers wisely chose to make it feel more like a documentary than the kind of cable show you might expect.

PJs are a combination fighting force and medical unit whose motto is "These Things We Do, That Others May Live." They undergo an intense physical training regimen that matches any other Special Operations unit in the Military before receiving advanced medical training. The training dropout rate is well over 90%, so the guys featured in the show are the elite survivors of the program. Since 9/11, PJs have executed over 12,000 combat rescue missions worldwide. In addition, their unique skill set has been called on in natural disasters like Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.

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The Air Force and Nat Geo TV rolled out the red carpet and flew a group of journalists down to 38th Squadron Headquarters in Valdosta, GA for the premiere of episode one and a day of demonstrations and interviews.  (Since I live in Atlanta, I knew that the 4-hour drive was easier than airport security, so I just took my car).

Valdosta used to be a small town, but it's boomed over the last decade and grown almost 25% to 54,000 residents since 2000. Moody has fueled a big part of that growth and the base itself has benefited from some massive upgrades since 9/11. The facilities have been expanded, upgraded and rebuilt and there was evidence of ongoing construction all over the base.

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Visitors got to see and participate in a CRO & PJ training exercise that included a crowbar- and saw-fueled vehicle extraction, a display of the PJ equipment and a chance to talk to the helicopter and airplane crews that support their missions. After a lunch with 23d Wing Leadership at the Field Club, the group got a Combat Search and Rescue demonstration at the Grand Bay Range. While the rainy weather prevented any actual para jumping, the demo gave a great sense of just how much coordination and firepower is required to pull off these missions. The PJs and CROs may be the personalities highlighted on Inside Combat Rescue, but the Air Force wanted to make the point that there are dozens of men and women whose roles are equally essential to mission success.

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The day ended with at base-wide screening at the Fuels Barn, Bldg. 646 with over 1000 people in attendance. After an overwhelmingly positive response from the audience, many folks on the base staff commented how Inside Combat Rescue gave them a lot more insight into just how their jobs at Moody supported the actions of the PJ's downrange.

There's no reason to think that the show can't maintain its quality over the next six episodes. The USAF gets to highlight an elite unit and generate an enormous amount  of goodwill, Nat Geo TV gets to show all the weapons and action in service of a show about men whose job it is to save lives and America gets to expand its current fascination with Special Forces by learning about a whole new flavor of hero.

We talked to Staff Sergeant Brett Taylor and Unit Commander Captain Seth Davis about what it's like to be on the show.

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Staff Sergeant Brett Taylor

How long have you been in the Air Force and how did you get in?

I've been in the Air Force for a little over eight years now. I've been a PJ for a little over five. Originally, I didn't want to go to college. Both of my grandparents were in the Navy so I wanted to join the military. I ended up talking to recruiters from all the services. I met up with an Air Force recruiter and he mentioned pararescue and combat rescue. I said, "Pararescue sounds pretty cool. What's that about?" He told me all about it. That sounds pretty awesome. It's all the cool things I already enjoy doing and I'll get paid to do it. I'll have skills if I want to get out, whether it be paramedic or dive instructor or anything like that. That's basically what got me into it. I signed up. I had to wait around a year. I did junior college for a year to get my slot for pararescue.

Was there a medical career history in your family?

No, but medical was a huge deciding factor. I'd never done anything medical-related. There are no doctors in my family at all. It sounded really interesting, like something I would like to do. That's why I picked it: helping people, that kind of thing.

What's the process for getting selected to be a PJ?

To become a PJ, you initially have to go through the indoctrination course. It's seven or eight weeks. I can't remember exactly since it was a long time ago.

How long ago was it?

I went through indoc back in 2005. That's when I graduated. So you make it through indoc with a lot of running, calisthenics, swimming. They're trying to test you physically and mentally to see if you're ready and capable to become a pararescueman. You go through what they call the Pipeline then. You have Army airborne school, survival school, dive school and free fall and then you go through your paramedic course for six months and then you go through another six months of the pararescue apprentice course, which is basically everything combined. You do a lot more trauma medicine, more jumping, more shooting, land nav, weapons tactics and an FTX (Field Training Exercise) at the end where everything's combined. You do scenarios and full mission profiles.

How long does that take?

That process took just under three years for me. Normally, now it's taking around two years for guys to get through.

Did you sign up for this when you went in?

In the past, you could be in basic training and really not know what you job is yet. Pararescue instructors would come over and ask who would want to try out, who wants to be PJ. Now, they're kind of doing it where you go in and it's guaranteed. You have to take a pre-physical screening they call it. The PAST Test (Physical Ability Stamina Test). Passing that will get you a guaranteed slot to become a pararescue before you go in.

How did you hear about the show?

In the military, you get told a lot. So we fought it as much as we could at our level. Our commanders fought it because we don't like being the center of attention or in the spotlight. We just like going out, doing our job, coming home and that's it. We tried fighting it as much as we could but it came down, "Hey, you're doing this."

So we accepted it. Still a little hesitant at first but everybody that we were working with over there was pretty professional and made it pretty easy on us to do our job, to continue to deploy and do our missions.

Did they assemble the team to be on the show or had you guys already worked together?

No. The team that was going was going. We were already assembled. We already had our pre-deployment spin-up training set. It was the same guys and there was no change to the team, really.

You didn't have to go through a Real-World style casting process for this?

No, none of that. I don't even know what's involved with that. We didn't do any casting…

Nobody interviewed you about your backstory before they decided you were going to be on the show?

They knew that in our squad we pick our guys who are going so we can assemble our team and train and work on our standard operating procedures before we deploy, so we can function smoothly as one unit. It makes it easier to train up with your guys before you deploy instead of picking a guy, like, a month before he's supposed to go who has no idea how you operate, how he operates. You're not on the same page.

What was it like having the cameras follow you around on the base? How long did it take for you to get used to that?

It takes a few weeks to get used to the cameras. They were everywhere. Always in your face. That's just kind of in the down time you realize what's going on. When you a mission or in the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) and about to get a call, you don't really realize it too much. You're focused on what you have to do.

What about the cameras you carried with you on the missions? 

I never really realized we were carrying them. You make sure you turn it on for a mission and, after that, you didn't really realize it was there.

They're not heavy?

Not really.

When you get back from a mission, do you do sort of a post-game analysis?

We call that a debrief. Depending on what the mission was, on how it went, how we operate with the air crew. Usually we'll do a debrief of some sort. A lot of times it could just be basic and routine: nothing really happened so we don't debrief it. If it was something we had to do a little preplanning for where we talked about how are we going to work this one then we kinda have a debrief.

How much of the show footage have you seen?

I've only seen bits and pieces of it. Capt. Davis and myself went to the Air Force Academy last weekend. They did a little pre-screening there but they only showed a 20-minute clip and that was kind of the first finalized bit that I had seen and it was interesting.

Would you want access to that mission footage in the future?

It is beneficial. A lot of what we do when we train, we'll have cameras. Certain people are qualified to carry cameras with them on certain training missions and we are able to debrief the situation, whatever we did. Whether we constructively critique someone or they can be like, "no I didn't do that." Well, let's watch the clip because you did do that and you were wrong. Fix yourself. This is what you need to do to correct yourself. So it's good to have the cameras sometimes to be able to be like, "This is what happened." When you're in the moment, sometimes you don't remember everything. You're doing what you're supposed to do. You're doing what you're trained to do. It's second nature so you're not really thinking too much about it. So you can look at that film and you're like, "OK. That's what I was doing. Good thing I did that."

How do you feel about this press event?

This is overwhelming. A lot of the guys I know are definitely not…There are certain people who are out there who love the camera, who love to talk. A lot of the guys here aren't like that. Everybody's really humble. We do our job. We do it well and that's it.

Is there anything about being on the show that will keep you from being deployed in the future?

I don't see anything in this show keeping guys from being deployed. This is just the network and the Air Force telling people about combat search and rescue and personal recovery.

One good thing about Inside Combat Rescue is how the show doesn't turn you into reality show characters.

One thing we tried to make clear is that since we did have to do this, we at least want to make it accurate. We don't want this "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" crap. I'm not going to have an argument with someone just to have an argument with someone. What you're gonna get is what you're gonna get. The mission speaks for itself. What we do speaks for itself.

I just want to tell everybody thanks as far as who supports us, our unit, our secretaries, intel, comm, AFE, our riggers, all our people who help in training, all the PJs past and present who've molded me, molded this career field and made it is what it is today.

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Captain Seth Davis

How did you get in the Air Force?

My military career actually started in '98 in the Army. Towards the end of my career as an enlisted guy, I got picked up for the commissioning program. When I went back to school, I got contracted to the Air Force. I got a conditional release from the Army and that's how I came into the Air Force. I initially came in with a commission in 2003. The main reason I left the Army to come to the Air Force was to do Combat Rescue Officer training but, at the time, there wasn't a lot of information because CROs have only been around since 2001.

I came in to active duty and cross-trained. 2007 is when I cross-trained over. In my prior job, I was in a personnel and admin job. I really didn't have a choice in the matter. By looking at me, I'm not the right kind of fit for that type of job but it kind of worked out. A lot of stuff I learned on that side actually helped me out down the road.

As far as this career field, I came in in 2007 and started the journey here.

 How did you get in the Army?

I played a season of college football first. After that, I had an injury. I was just like, you know what… I was paying to go to school. I didn't qualify for financial aid and all that stuff, so I was just like "screw it, I'll enlist in the Army."  My brother talked me into that and then my brother talked me into coming in the Air Force. My brother's a C-5 pilot in the Air Force. I started boot camp in '99 but actually enlisted in the later part of '98.

I went through Combat Rescue selection in 2007. I was supposed to graduate and have my beret in December of 2009, but I had complete pectoral tear and a couple of surgeries to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. I graduated in June of 2010. I was hoping when I got here to Moody that I would be able to go out the door with the guys to Afghanistan but it just didn't work out. There wasn't really enough time to finish my upgrade.

Once guys graduate from the schoolhouse and they get their beret, they gotta do their Mission Qualifying Training (MQT) and, for the CROs, we have to get our team commander upgrade. Basically, you have to be Combat Mission Ready and you have to have your upgrade before you can go downrange to deploy. It's kind of a Prereq requirement every time you go, you have to be CMR.

It's really hard to get that in two months. I'm not saying it's impossible, it's just really, really hard, especially when aircraft are required and they go down for maintenance and all that stuff. So there's a lot of outside factors that you can't control. It's really hard to get guys their upgrade in a very, very short window.So that's the whole reason why I didn't get to go right after I graduated to go to Afghanistan. So I missed that on that one. I finally went to Kandahar in 2011 and then again in 2012.

 How did you first hear about Inside Combat Rescue?

So. I saw the email traffic floating around and then the commander was, like, "Hey, I want to talk to you about this" because I was going to be the detachment commander going on this deployment. We were all very hesitant when we first heard. You know, immediately, I was like, "No, no, I don't want to do it. Don't wanna do it. Don't wanna do it." We tried to push back on it as much as we could but our wing commander was like, and from the top, they're like, "You're doing it."  "Rog that, sir, we're doing it."

I thought that when we were doing our spin up training with all that cameras and everything, it would detract from training and the focus of my guys from the mission. But when the Nat Geo guys linked up with us, we kinda established some contracts like, "Hey can you do this and that?" and they were very receptive and they really stayed out of our way. It wasn't as bad as I initially thought. I was thinking, like, worst-case scenario reality show-type scene where they've got to get this shot or that shot.

There were times where they would try to get the shot and you were just yelling at them like, "Get out of the way!" because we were shooting. Or, "Don't stand there" because you're going to get hit by the damn helicopter. They would get yelled at by a lot of the NCOs. "Get out of the way! Do that again and you'll probably die." If you get hit by one of those props on the helos, the rotors, it'll take your head off. But they were really receptive to our input and then they execute off that.

 Have you seen any show footage yet?

I was pretty nervous waiting to see this thing because I was like, "Here we go. How are we going to be portrayed?" But they did an awesome job. Honestly, I thought they did a really good job as capturing the mission and it's as real as you can get.

You actually see the injuries of the patents we pick up. From mission drop, en route, pickup and the treatment coming back and post-mission. They did a really good job of capturing that and portraying that. Given the amount of time that they have, like 45 minutes per show. There's a lot more that they could probably add but that's the whole editing piece and that's what those guys get paid for.

Fake drama was another concern of ours when this whole thing started. How are they going to portray us? On all those reality shows, there's always that drama factor on it. That was a huge concern and they told us up front that "We are not trying to portray that image."

There's a little bit of the quirks of each individual and there's some funny parts, but that's just part of the boredom of being deployed and killing time. Some guys are more clowns than others. It's always good to play practical jokes on one another.

Have you been using cameras in training?

We already use some cameras like that right now in training for feedback, the small-type cameras. The camera doesn't lie. I could go out on a mission and, if you weren't' there, I could come back and tell you one thing. You would either have to take me at my word or, collectively as a team, our word on it.

Or you could watch video footage. Which, the camera doesn't lie. Guys can say, "Oh, man, it was awesome" but you sit down and really look at the footage of it. You have to step back and absorb everything from the missions. And then, you could be, like, "Good job on coming back and executing everything but here's all the debriefing points of "you could've done this better" or "see how you did this wrong" and everything else.

It's not like a policy. A lot of the guys own their own type of little cameras and, on our own, that's usually what we'll do when we run through, whether we're doing CQB (Close Quarters Battle), running through the shoot houses or the mount village or you name it. Doing medical training, high-angle stuff. We'll catch that stuff because it's too easy.

It's either you have a chest mount or you have it on a rail system on our helmet. We debrief anyway every time we do a training sortie or training event. There's always a debrief. It's that much more important if you have video to talk about it. Because guys sometimes will forget or they'll be like, "No, I didn't see it that way." Well, right here on the camera, you actually did X, Y & Z.

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