COCOA BEACH, Fla – Their motto says it all: “That Others May Live.” The way service personnel are portrayed in the movies and on TV you would expect a lot of bravado and swagger – the truth is far different. AmericaSpace recently toured the 920th Rescue Wing’s facilities located at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida and the men (it is an all-male occupation) that comprise what are known as pararescuemen or PJs.
Although the PJs are part of the pararescue squadron here, they are part of several elements that comprise the Guardian Angel Weapons System (GAWS). GAWS Airmen consist of the combat rescue officer (officers like Capt Chandou), the pararescueman, (enlisted men like Tech. Sgt. Warren) and the sere specialists (search evasion resistance escape specialists).
We were introduced to U.S. Air Force Reserve Captain Luc Chandou, one of the combat rescue officers in the pararescue squadron at PAFB. He escorted us through the various buildings that the unit uses to store their equipment and train for the missions that they conduct. The structures, while immaculately clean have small touches throughout that highlights that these are human beings that have a very dangerous occupation.
“These lockers are where we store all of our gear,” said Chandou. “The surfboards are, obviously, not government-issue, we have a lot of guys that love the ocean and they love to surf in their off time.”
Chandou told us about William H. “Pits” Pitsenbarger who was the first enlisted recipient of the U.S. Air Force Cross, later upgraded to the Medal of Honor – he was posthumously awarded the medal in 1966. Chandou stated that the PJs had deep admiration and respect for Pitsenbarger – and his sacrifice.
Chandou talked about the different types of operations that the PJs were called upon to conduct. From military operations in the theatre of war, to aiding stricken hurricane survivors, these men conduct their missions whenever and wherever called upon with a silent stoicism.
Throughout the tour one symbol appeared again and again – two, highly-stylized, green feet. The logo goes back to the PJs of Vietnam who would land to recover downed servicemen in what were know as “Jolly Green Giants” – helicopters employed for recovery purposes. Whenever the helicopter took off it would leave two large impressions in the high grasses – leading to the moniker and symbol – “Green Feet.”
One lady that was in the group that toured the PJs facilities had her curiosity piqued when Chandou mentioned that some in the unit got two green feet tattooed to their rear end. She was hoping to see if he had one as well. Chandou, in typical fashion, respectfully declined.
This bit of humor highlighted the persona of these brave individuals. Throughout the tour Chandou talked about William Pitsenbarger, he talked about the retired serviceman who maintained the team’s dive equipment, the mechanic who kept the machines that the PJs used operating at peak efficiency, the missions and conditions that these folks worked under – but he never spoke of himself until asked.
“We’ve conducted a wide range of missions, from supporting rescue efforts during Hurricane Katrina, deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan to helping a Korean sailor with acute appendicitis.” Chandou said.
The impression one received when speaking to Chandou and the other men who risk their lives “that others may live” is that they do not do it for fame, glory or bragging rights. They do it to ensure that others in the field of battle stand a chance of making it home alive. They do it to see that those enduring the worst day of their lives are provided with hope that things are going to be okay and they do it their country – and one another.