By Staff Sgt. Leslie Kraushaar, 920 Rescue Wing Public Affairs
/ Published December 29, 2009
PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- "Don't quit." That's the motto here for the pre-indoctrination course for the Air Force Reserve pararescuemen and combat rescue officers. It's an imperative that will stick with these men throughout their two-year training program, known as the "Pipeline."
Patrick's 920th Rescue Wing administers the Physical Ability and Stamina Test the first Wednesday of every month for wannabe PJs and CROs. Applicants from all over the United States come here to attempt the P.A.S.T.
Tech. Sgt. Patrick Dunne, an Air Force Reserve 920th PJ and test administer, is the Pipeline gatekeeper. Pass his test, and there's a good chance of passing "INDOC."
"I think this is one of the most important steps in the journey," Sergeant Dunne said.
He went through the P.A.S.T here in 2002 after a nine-year break in service after leaving the Marine Corps' Force Recon. The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, drew him back into the service, this time as an Air Force Reserve PJ.
Master Sgt. Eric Tolson, the 920th in-service/pararescue recruiter, agrees that the P.A.S.T is the most important step in the process of becoming a PJ.
"If you don't pass the P.A.S.T., you will never become a PJ," Sergeant Tolson said.
Once a person takes the test, he becomes eligible for an interview board. However, passing the physical part of this test is no guarantee that the board will accept the person for pipeline training.
Sergeant Dunne runs the program with an iron fist, a water hose and the silent shake of the head that the trainees so dread. His tough-as-nails attitude toward the trainees comes with a very valid reason.
"I know what it takes to do this job, and I want the guys around me to be the best of the best. My life may depend on it," he said.
Capt. Dan Turpin, a CRO candidate, was an Army Ranger for four years before going into the Air Force Reserve. He came in specifically for the CRO program.
In the Army, his primary mission was much different than combat rescue. His interest in the CRO program was sparked when PJs came to the rescue of an Afghanistan national during his Army deployment.
"I want to be a part of something so much more rewarding [...] to help people," he said.
The P.A.S.T. is hard but not as difficult as the training to come. If a person can't stand up to this test, he won't get a shot at INDOC.
With a 95 percent washout rate for the INDOC course, it's no wonder recruitment is down.
"I think the biggest problem is that these young guys don't think the process is as tough as what it actually is," said Sergeant Tolson. "A lot of times in society today people are allowed to pass based on effort. This program is not that way. This job demands a certain level of mental and physical toughness, and you have to meet the standard."
The physical part of the test is timed pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups and flutter kicks. After the calisthenics, there's a 3-mile run with a 22-minute limit. Trainees have to hit the 1.5-mile mark in under 10:45.
Then comes the hardest part: the pool work.
"The pool work we do is the hardest in the Department of Defense, and this is quoting someone who went to the Navy SEAL training," said Sergeant Dunne.
The pool work starts with 15 minutes of 25-meter underwater swimming, followed by a 30-minute time limit on a 1,500-meter swim.
If there are no new recruits in for the testing, the trainees waiting to go to INDOC still come in once a month and do the P.A.S.T test. It's here that Sergeant Dunne shows the soon-to-be INDOC participants a little taste of what is to come, and he's not easy on them.
Why the no-nonsense treatment?
"There are no guarantees in the pipeline," said Sergeant Dunne.
Guys have been cut during the last week of the INDOC program. Some fail the academic challenges of the paramedic program. The 18-month process of becoming an elite pararescueman is riddled with challenges.
Captain Turpin is one of four men scheduled for INDOC training starting in January 2010. They all passed the P.A.S.T testing process and are on to the pipeline.
Staff Sgt. Christopher Driscoll is another one entering the pipeline in January. He also was in the Marine Corps Recon and was a government contractor overseas. Like the captain, he saw the PJs in action in a combat zone and decided to try for the program himself.
"I'm excited to get this process started," said Sergeant Driscoll, who has been training and preparing for the program for months.
"The training is tough but it is fair," said Chief Master Sgt. Douglas Kestranek, chief enlisted manager of the 308th Rescue Squadron. "With enough heart and desire, these men will be successful. Anything in life that is worthwhile comes with extreme sacrifice. Success is often measured by level of effort and risk - including this two-year training program - you either pass or fail."
"We have no excuse to fail," Captain Turpin said. "This is just something you have to go through."
With only 350 Air Force Reserve PJs in service, it is vital that the best-of-the-best get to the initial INDOC training and complete the program.
"As reservists, we have the additional responsibility of recruiting in addition to training and equipping our battlefield Airmen to support combatant commanders," said Chief Kestranek.
Like every specialty in the Air Force, there are quotas to meet and fill, but pararescue demands a special person to fulfill the duties.
"Special operators [PJs] cannot be mass produced, so someone says we have a quota to meet then the emphasis goes from quality to quantity [...]," said Sergeant Dunne. "That's why I'm so hard on the trainees and hold them to such a high standard. I do not want to launch on a mission with someone who does not take this job as seriously as I do."
The primary job for PJs is to rescue downed aircrew members or people stranded on land or in the sea. They are trained in emergency medical procedures and use those skills whether on a humanitarian mission or in combat. Their training permits them to authenticate, extract, treat, stabilize and evacuate injured people. They do all of that whether they are rescuing a lost hiker, saving a stranded sailor or evading an enemy to bring a fellow Airman home. Not only are they Combat Search and Rescue trained, they also are the most highly trained emergency trauma specialists in the U.S. military. All of these skills combined enable the PJs to perform life-saving missions anywhere in the world.
"All special operators are cut from the same cloth," said Sergeant Dunne." In my opinion what makes a great PJ is not only being physically fit but being well-rounded and well-educated about the job. As a Force Recon Marine, I was expected to be an expert in two areas, as a PJ, I am expected to be an expert in no less than a dozen aspects of my job."
Chief Kestranek agrees.
"This job is not for everyone," he said, "but it is perfect for the warrior who desires to be in the game rather than watching." (Air Force Reserve Command News Service)