Saving lives at 26,000 feet
Geoff Metcalf interviews pararescuer extraordinaire Jack Brehm

By Geoff Metcalf
Jack Brehm has been a Pararescue Jumper, or PJ, for over 20 years. The little-known unit of the Air Force/Air National Guard performs daring rescues in both military and civilian settings. The rigorous training of PJs combines the specialty schools of the Green Berets, SEALs and other elite units. Brehm's book, "That Others May Live," chronicles his life as a professional rescuer in the United States military.

Question: I have interviewed a long list of special warfare types -- Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, Marines Force Recon. I am a graduate of a bunch of the Fort Benning and Fort Bragg schools. However, after reading "That Others May Live," I am humbled to recognize that what these guys in the Pararescue Jumpers, "PJs," do is just way, way over the top. These guys really are kind of a cross between a Jedi Knight and Superman. What are the Pararescue Jumpers all about?

Answer: The mission of pararescue is combat search and rescue, and our mission is to recover fighter pilots that have been shot down behind enemy lines. All our training is geared for that sole mission. The most recent event was the Stealth fighter that was shot down over Kosovo. It was Pararescue that came in with other forces and recovered him. Within six hours of him being shot out of the sky, he was back at his airbase in Aviano.

Q: You guys don't only deal with combat related missions; you cover a real broad spectrum when it comes to Pararescue.

A: We do. In peacetime, my unit is a space shuttle rescue team. We recover every single space shuttle launch. Should the space shuttle have a problem during takeoff and lose an engine, either a solid rocket booster or one of the other engines, they are going to try what they call an RTLS, a return to launch site maneuver. Shut off all the engines, drop the solid rocket boosters and come in as a glider.

Q: A real heavy glider.

A: Yeah. Before they take off, we are two hundred miles out to sea circling in what they call "the footprint," which is the planned ditching area for the shuttle. Of course, if they are not going to land on the runway, they don't want it hitting the mainland, so they are going to ditch it 200 miles out. The astronauts will parachute out and then we have six PJs in the back of the C-130 with three rubber boats. We basically parachute with the rubber boats. We push them out and skydive behind them, get in the water, start them up, and then we recover the astronauts until helicopters can come out. We are constantly on alert either in Iceland or right now in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Turkey for Operation Northern Watch or Operation Southern Watch, the No-Fly Zones still in effect in Iraq. We are protecting them on a daily basis. We provide civilian search and rescue whenever called upon. That is not our primary role. It is only when it's outside the Coast Guard realm or the Civil Air Patrol realm of rescue. Then they call us in as the military. We have assets that they certainly don't have.

Q: The book makes any Bruce Willis action/adventure movie look like chump change. Please explain what this "pipeline" of training is you guys go through. What is the training that is required for a Pararescue Jumper?

A: "The Pipeline" is just a series of schools that you have to go through to become a qualified Pararescueman. It takes about 18 months. They just cut it down from two years to become a PJ from scratch. They recruit every trainee that is going through Air Force Basic Training, and they give them the option of Pararescue. The first school is "Superman school." It is three months long. That is our selection school, the equivalent of the Navy BUD school. They take in about 80 students and they tell you on day one they will graduate eight. Eight will be the maximum they will graduate.

Q: And these are all kids who think they are in great shape.

A: Oh absolutely. You know on day one there is a 90 percent chance you will be washed out of the training at some point. There are no graduation criteria. It just gets tougher and tougher and tougher until there are eight or less left.

Q: What is a typical day's training?

A: Well, you get up in the morning and run as a team. You do everything as a team; it's team training. And you'll run 10 miles either carrying a rope (so you are all tied together) or carrying a railroad iron on your shoulders or above your head, running and singing cadence and songs. For three months, you never walk anywhere you go. You run back and recover. Get your mask, fins and snorkel, and run to the pool where warm-ups will be a one-mile swim.

Then they start the workout, which will be underwater sprints, then water harassment (which is the toughest part of the training). Then from the pool, you will run back. In the afternoon, you do nothing but calisthenics. You go down into what they call "the dungeon" and you do push ups, pull ups, sit ups, leg lifts and every other form of calisthenics you can think of for whatever amount of time they decide to torture you that day. That goes on for three months with the standards being raised every week.

The beauty of the school is they don't throw anybody out. You have to SIE (Self-Initiated Eliminate). At certain times of the day, they throw a pen at you and say, "Just sign your name and you can be on the beach in an hour." It's just a matter of the eight guys who won't say the two words "I quit!"

Q: That's just Phase One. Once you survive that, then what?

A: Then you enter what they call "The Pipeline". From there, you go to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic Airborne training. Anybody who parachutes out of an airplane goes through the Army school. Then you go to Key West, Florida, which is Special Forces SCUBA school (again an Army school). There you learn everything from re-breathers to basic SCUBA diving to how to clear and assault a beach to clear the bottom of a ship of munitions or possible mines.

Then you go to survival school in Washington State where you learn to live off the land. They put you in the woods with a backpack and a pocketknife. For five days, you have to survive in the woods -- and that doesn't mean lose 40 pounds and get picked up in five days. They want you to weigh the same when you come out as when you started. That means eating a lot of. ...

Q: There's a lot of protein in worms and grubs.

A: That's right ... termites were an easy catch. From there, you go to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. That's free-fall school, where you learn to parachute not from a static line airplane at 1,500 feet, but from as high as 26,000 feet, jumping with oxygen, weapons and packs. >From there, you go to Kirkland Air Force base, which is the polishing school. That's about six months long. That's where you get your paramedic training, your basic combat medic training, mountain training and aerial training (where you learn to become a crew member on both fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft).

You become an aerial gunner on the H-60 aircraft. That's where you first start putting missions together. They put out little scenarios of a pilot down in the woods and you'll parachute in, escape and evade for a couple of clicks, make the recovery, do a medical treatment, and then have them evacuated by helicopter or some other form.

Q: Jack, how old are you?

A: I'm 43.

Q: Are you getting kinda old for this stuff?

A: That's what my birth certificate says. Somehow I don't feel it.

Q: You run all the time still, and you take part in iron man events and marathons.

A: Yes.

Q: You beat my best marathon time by about an hour ... and you are still doing this stuff?

A: Yes. I run one marathon a year -- I have for over 20 years now. I also mix in other things. Triathaloning is my latest craze. I just ran my first ironman triathlon here in California at the "Vineman" last July.

Q: Of the guys that you graduated with, how many are still working like you are?

A: None. The only other guy to retire, John Smith, just retired about two years ago. Joe Higgins is the last guy who is still left in the service at all, but he has gotten a commission and is now a helicopter pilot so he is no longer a PJ.

Q: How many PJs are there?

A: There are only 400 PJs in the world; 200 are on active duty. There are 100 in the Air National Guard, 100 in the Reserves. So we are the smallest group in the military.

Q: How are these assets tasked? There are so few of you. Are you assigned to a unit, or are you just sitting around waiting for something to happen?

A: Everybody is assigned to a unit, whether it is in Alaska, New York, California, Florida, or Osan Korea or Iceland, or the different units we have in Europe. From those units, it is very typical that although that may be your basic assignment, you may spend up to 200-plus days a year away from that unit on temporary duty somewhere else in the world. That could be Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Japan or anywhere else where we are required to sit on alert for weeks, sometimes months at a time.

Q: I have interviewed a lot of different elite unit members. Ranger units are traditionally tasked at a company level, preferably battalion size, but company size is not odd. Special Forces: operational detachment of 10 or 12 guys. What about you guys? How many PJs get dispatched for a mission?

A: Depends on the mission. If it's a space shuttle, it might be as few as six. They could be stationed in Africa, Spain or someplace like that. Usually for a combat alert, sitting on the border somewhere waiting for a fighter pilot to lose an engine or be shot down, we'll have a contingent of about 12 on every border waiting to go in.

Q: There is an amusing chapter in your book about first-time missions. After all this intensive, extraordinary training, obviously you are waiting to apply all these newly acquired and honed skills. Sometimes it doesn't happen right away. What was your for real first job?

A: It was reported there were three critically ill patients on a Greek freighter 600 miles out to sea. We got the call at about 8 o'clock at night, so it was already dusk. The Coast Guard got the mission. They looked at it and saw it was 600 miles out, and the farthest a Coast Guard helicopter can go is about 200 miles. We were the only ones with air-refuelable helicopters, so when it gets past 200 miles, the Coast Guard will typically ask us to go make the recovery. We flew out to the tanker. We got there late at night. After multiple air refuelings, the probe light went out (which lights up our probe, which we need to plug into the back of the C-130 to get the fuel). So the air refuelings became a serious challenge.

Q: What happened when you finally got to the ship?

A: My partner went down onto the decks and he was going to triage the patients first. The penetrator came up and I just had that ... well, I was brand new, and I was just thinking, "Don't make a mistake. Just do your job. Do it right."

I was being lowered down on the penetrator and I figured I was about 80 feet over the ship. You have on mask, fins and snorkel even though you are getting lowered onto a ship, just in case something goes wrong and you end up in the water. I must have had my fins sticking out in a precarious position because underneath me was the rotor wash of a helicopter. I found myself in a violent spin and I just remember seeing the lights of the ship spinning and spinning and spinning, like a figure skater watching the stands go around. The next time I looked down the ship was gone. I couldn't imagine what had happened to the ship that was right below me. All I knew was it was hot and dark and I couldn't see a thing and the next thing I felt was this G-force coming up my spine.

Then I realized I was about 300 feet above the ship. Then I was repositioned to the stern of the ship and they wound up lowering me onto the ship. I got down and met my partner below decks. He told me the baby, the two-year-old was dead, the six-year-old was very ill, and the mother was ill. The captain was also very ill, but he refused to leave the ship. We didn't know what was wrong, but they were complaining about burning lungs and a cough and respiratory problems. My partner looked at me and said, "What is wrong with you?" I asked him, "What are you talking about?" He said, "You're black from head to toe."

Turns out they had inadvertently lowered me down the smokestack of the ship. That was the pitch black and warm scenario I had found myself in. We recovered the patients and wound up flying them up to Boston's Children's hospital. It was a mission I'll never forget. I don't think any PJ forgets his first mission.

Q: You've been doing this for over 20 years. How many actual, non-training, for-real missions have you had?

A: I don't know. I'd guess 40 to 50. We don't sit for that civilian search and rescue mission. That's not our goal; it's just combat training. If we get them, we get three or four a year, that's considered a good year for us. The military doesn't keep a record, and I certainly didn't keep a complete record. So I would guess about 40 or 50 missions.

Q: Jack, what was the gnarliest, nastiest, spookiest mission you had?

A: I have to say my hairiest mission was the rescue on Mt. McKinley in Alaska. On other missions you get the call, you fly out in a helicopter, you perform the mission, whatever that is. But you have had your crew rest before you go. You are usually hydrated and well fed. You are physiologically pretty sound when you go into it. Even though some of them are pretty demanding physically and mentally, at least you went in at a strong point.

However, this Mt. McKinley rescue was at 17,000 feet; it was a Korean who was unconscious. We were tasked to do the mission. It had taken us 17 days from the start to get up to that altitude.

Q: Wait a minute! Seventeen days?

A: Well, we had started the climb 17 days earlier and we were down at 14,000 feet when we got tasked with the mission. We got word there was someone unconscious 3,000 feet above us. We had been climbing at about a thousand feet a day to acclimate. Climbing any mountain, you climb it twice. You go up, you put in your cache of stuff, you bury it, and you come back and sleep at the lower altitude. Then you pick up the tents the next day and you move up. It is a very slow process. When we got the word he was 3,000 feet above us, we were the ones that were best acclimated to try to make a push of 3,000 feet and get there. It took us 11 hours to climb to him. When we got there, we discovered he was critical. He was unconscious and had been a little over two days, so we needed to get him down as soon as possible.

We tried to lower him 3,000 feet right down a koolar, which is just a crack in rock. It was a lot shorter trip to go straight down and lower him 3,000 feet than it was the way we came up -- climbing up the head wall and coming around on a razorback. So we started to belay him down the 3,000 feet along with two other PJs as a storm started to come in. At that point, we were about 15 hours into this climb. We had not stopped ourselves to eat, to drink, or to get warm. The storm started picking up and getting worse and worse. The temperature was going down, and the winds were picking up to around 60 miles per hour on the ridge we were on. We literally ran out of rope.

Q: That was my next question. How much rope did you have?

A: We had brought ropes ourselves, but we were told there was going to be a cache of rescue equipment at this 17,000-foot mark. Indeed, we did find the box that was filled with rope. We were just told it had enough rope to get down from 17,000 feet down to the 14,000-foot camp.

Q: So they lied.

A: We didn't measure it out. We started the rescue, and three quarters of the way down, we ran out of rope (or so we thought at the time). At that point, we were on the edge ourselves. There is a fine line always in every mission between rescuer and rescuee, and you don't ever want to cross that line. We found ourselves right on the brink where in a matter of minutes we were going to cross the line where we were going to need rescue. So our team leader made the right call. He said it's time to stop; we can't do anything else for these guys on the line right now. We need to get ourselves dug in, get some food, get in some tents, get warmed up.

After about two hours of tent building, I saw out of the corner of my eye what I thought was a helicopter or a bird flying over. I thought it was there to help us with the rescue. I realized it was the tent the other guys had been trying to build for the last couple of hours, which had just blown off the ridgeline. At that point, we were really in a fix. We started digging down. We realized we couldn't just build a tent, but had to dig a hole to literally put the tent in.

Q: What was the status of the victim at this point?

A: We didn't know. Not so much the victim (not that we weren't worried about him), but we had also lowered two pararescue men with him on both sides of the litter to help him and the litter down to the bottom safely. We were worried about the two guys we had tied off down there who can't leave that rope.

Q: Because they are just hanging in the wind.

A: Exactly. If you tried to walk off the rope, there were crevices and it would be almost a certain decision for death to get off that rope. So we knew they were tied in down there, and we knew they were hanging by a fine line to say the least. After a couple of hours, we did get a tent erected. We got some snow walls built up; we got some stoves lit; we got fluids. Another one of our guys decided he was going to go down this line and find out what the problem is. Is it hooked up somewhere, or what is the problem? He does indeed find where the rope had wedged itself in two rocks above the litter and the other two PJs. He freed the rope, thinking he was doing the right thing, but it put the litter with the patient and the other two PJs in free-fall. This wasn't a straight drop, just a very steep angle. They had to try to arrest the descent with ice axes and by grabbing onto rocks. They finally did arrest the litter. As it turned, out there was enough rope and we could at that point slowly belay them all the way down to 14,000 feet.

Q: How long was this adventure?

A: The whole rescue took I think about 23 hours from start to finish. It was one of the toughest psychologically, physically and physiologically to execute.

Q: Did the victim survive?

A: Yes he did. His name is Kim Hong Bim, and he went on to lose both hands. He has two prostheses but he has now climbed four of the five tallest peaks in the world. According to my last contact with him, he is going to try to attempt Everest this spring.

Q: Last year, I interviewed the author of "Blackhawk Down" about those Army Rangers who got in big trouble in Mogadishu. You said a couple of your buddies were involved in that rescue?

A: Yes. Two PJs were on that mission, Scotty Failes and Tim Wilkinson. They deployed with a couple of Special Forces troops. They fast-roped in (which is nothing more than sliding down like a big gym rope). It's a fast way to get numerous numbers of people out of a helicopter. Unfortunately, they ran up to the crash site, which was wedged between two buildings in Somalia. Scotty Failes ran up to the front of the aircraft and saw the copilot trapped in the downside of the aircraft. As he leaned over, he felt a stinging in his leg and he rolled off the aircraft and realized he had been shot. Tim Wilkinson, who was younger, ran up and was beside himself, figuring there goes my team leader and now I'm alone out here. He was. It was an 18-hour gun battle -- quite a disaster. Tim wound up taking care of about 20 casualties that day including his partner Scott. But the most interesting part to me was Scotty's feeling when he was shot. I asked him if he was scared. He said, "I wasn't scared; I was MAD. You train all this time to get in the game. The coach finally says 'go,' and you trip over the chains and you're injured."

Q: I know you can't talk about the F-117 Stealth shoot-down in Kosovo, but what about when Scott O'Grady was shot down? That seemed like the classic PJ mission.

A: You're right. I can't say much about the 117 shoot-down. Many, many parts of that are still classified. That was a multi-force task force that went in there. There were PJs on board. In fact, it was a young PJ who actually ran over and made the contact with the pilot and medically treated him and brought him back.

Q: What about Scott O'Grady?

A: That was a whole different scenario. Instead of flying in covert and trying to sneak in, they tried to go in overt in the old-fashioned way and fly two gigantic 53s in there with 25-plus Marines on each bird.

Q: And that's not counting the CNN team.

A: Who was there first -- just kidding. It was a whole different theory on how to conduct a rescue. I'm not saying which one is right or wrong. Fortunately, both those scenarios turned out well.

Q: What does your wife think about your career?

A: She tolerates it and she tolerates it well. I was in Pararescue when she met me. I think it's really hard to go into Pararescue when you are already married. We've been married for 21 years, and she's seen me come and go year after year to all different places on all different taskings and all different missions.

Q: Jack, you're 43 now. You say the body is still willing, but what about momma?

A: Yeah, I think that's going to be my breaking point. I think my wife has just about had her fill. It's been the greatest time of my life. It's like any professional sportsman likes to say, "Well, that was my last game." They're always signing for that one more year. I'm not willing to hang it up yet. However, I think in all fairness to my wife, I will in a couple of years. It really is a young man's game.