Lifeguards to the 'pararescue'
By Megan Just, 452nd Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 15, 2009
MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. -- A picturesque, palm-tree lined beach teeming with sunbathers may seem an unlikely place to find recruiters seeking applicants for an elite military unit.
Yet, the sunny California beaches were exactly what Air Force Reserve recruiter Tech. Sgt. William Biddle had in mind when he enlisted help from the Western Recruiting Squadron at March ARB to host pararescue booths at two oceanside festivals this summer.
"We went out to California to target people who are interested in saving lives," said Sergeant Biddle. "And who better than the lifeguards on the California coast?"
Sergeant Biddle is a recruiter based in Tucson, Ariz. He has created a niche in pararescue recruiting for the 306th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson.
The recruiters set up booths at the San Clemente Ocean Festival and the West Coast Lifeguard Championships at Seal Beach.
"It was the first time I've ever done a recruiting event at a beach," said Staff Sgt. Long Diep, a March ARB recruiter who assisted at the Seal Beach event. "We raised a lot of awareness because there were people there from all different parts of the state."
"They did everything from paddle boarding to a mile ocean swim to a run-swim-run - all kinds of different competitions," Sergeant Biddle said. "These are the type of people we would like to target because they have that physical ability to swim and run and perform the kinds of duties that we require in a tryout.
"We were able to plant a lot of seeds with these young adults," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of the people who walked up to our booth were asking us 'Why does the Air Force have scuba gear? Why does the Air Force have climbing equipment?' They had never heard of the pararescue program. Everybody knows what a Navy SEAL is. Everybody knows what an Army Ranger is. But not everybody knows what a pararescueman is."
Like the jobs of the SEALs and Rangers, pararescuemen's duties are not for the faint of heart.
"The wartime mission is to go outside the wire and rescue injured assets whether it be Air Force or other services or even foreign military," said Sergeant Biddle. "Their job is to save lives.
"They get there by any means necessary, and they are highly trained in jumping, free fall, high altitude opening and scuba diving," Sergeant Biddle said. "Any way they can get there, they'll get there. And they're always training to do that mission."
Recent base realignments caused 15 hard-to-fill pararescue positions to suddenly open with the 306th RQS. The positions are hard to fill because these reservists often receive other military special forces training such as the Navy Basic Underwater Demolition course and Army Ranger school.
"This is the hardest unit in the country to get into and the reason it's the hardest is because of the selection day process they go through," Sergeant Biddle said.
Tryouts at Davis-Monthan AFB begin with an Air Force Special Tactics physical fitness test.
"After the test, they go through a typical day in the life of a typical pararescueman in training," Sergeant Biddle said. "They'll see anything from buddy breathing to fin swimming to a rucksack run, and we even have a mud pit here like you would see in indoc.
"We put them through the wringer all day long," he said. "And, if they can make it all day after their test to late in the afternoon and get to the interview process, they'll go a pararescue board, and the pararescue board recommends for the command board."
If a candidate passes the command board, he has been selected to enter the pararescue training pipeline.
The rigorous selection day tryouts at Davis-Monthan AFB seem to attract rather than deter potential pararescuemen. Sergeant Biddle has seen men come from all over the United States, even from overseas.
"I get phone calls from Iraq and Afghanistan all the time from people who have talked to our guys when they're out on missions," he said.
There is an element of confidence that a future pararescueman can gain from a tryout at Davis-Monthan.
"If you can make it through the selection day here at the 306th, then you have nearly a 100-percent pass rate in (indoctrination training at Lackland AFB, Texas) whereas all the other units have an 80-percent washout rate," Sergeant Biddle said.
The 306th RQS held its summer tryouts Aug. 12. Of the six who tried out, one was picked for pararescue and two were selected for CRO.
Some of the qualifications pararescuers must maintain include scuba diving, parachuting and emergency medical treatment. They also need to keep up their flight hours in HH-60 Blackhawk helicopters.
After candidates have been selected for the Air Force Reserve pararescue career field, they will need to move to the local area for the training pipeline that normally lasts between two and three years. If they're brand new to the military, they'll work with a recruiter in their home state, come out for tryouts, then go out to basic training from their home state.
"Once they are qualified for the Air Force Reserve, I set them up with Sergeant Biddle," said Sergeant Diep.
The need for high-caliber pararescue recruits will not end when the vacancies at Davis-Monthan AFB have been filled.
"We constantly need to be feeding the pipeline. Just because we put 10 people in the pipeline doesn't mean we're going to get 10 people back out," Sergeant Biddle said.
A sampling of pararescue training:
Pararescue Indoctrination - Lackland AFB, Texas
Combat Diver Course -- Panama City, Fla.
Basic Army Airborne School - Fort Benning, Ga.
Military Free Fall School - Yuma, Ariz.
Basic Survival School - Fairchild AFB, Wash.
Navy Underwater Egress - Pensacola, Fla.
Emergency Medical Technicain-Paramedic Certification - Kirtland AFB, N.M.
Recovery Specialist Course - Kirtland AFB, N.M.