The Pararescuemen of the 920th: “That Others May Live”

Seen here on a patch of one of the 920th's pararescuemen's uniforms is the profession's motto: "That Others May Live." Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

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).

The members of the 920th Rescue Wing conduct rescue operations in varioous types of marine environments. The primary helicopter that the unit uses is the HH-60G Pave Hawk. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

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.”

 

Scube gear that has been expertly maintained awaits the next mission in this image. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

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.

William H. "Pits" Pitsenbarger was the first U.S. Air Force enlisted man to receive the U.S. Air Force Cross - this was later upgraded to the U.S. Medal of Honor. Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

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. 

The HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter that the pararescuemen of the 920th Rescue Wing use to conduct rescue operations - is one impressive looking aircraft. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

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. 

U.S. Air Force Reserve Captain Luc a. Chandou describes some of the various vehicles that the PJs use on their missions. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

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 primary fixed-wing aircraft that the PJs use is the HC-130P/N. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

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.

The propellers of the HC-130 P/N stand ready to deploy service personnel into harm's way at a moments notice. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

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