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Putting my faith in Angels

  • Published
  • By Capt. Cathleen Snow
  • 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
Someone once said if riding in an airplane is flying, then riding in a boat is swimming. If you want to experience the element, then get out of the vehicle.

For me, skydiving was bucket list item no. 34 and a serious sport that takes fellow Guardian Angel Airmen from the Air Force Reserve's 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., to the most-impossible spots in the world, to rescue those near death.

As airborne combat trauma specialists, they're always in a rush; therefore piloting the wind from a fast-moving aircraft is not only the quickest, but often the only way to get to those who are in imminent danger and in need of medical treatment -- fast.

Although skydiving is just another office commute for my fellow Angels, the liabilities are endless. Flawless execution every time demands a cellular approach. Drifting a mile off course is not an option since, number one, someone's life depends on them, and number two, the surrounding area is hot, it's a war zone and there are scores of threats who want them dead.

With 800 jumps under his chute, jump master Charlie Colter is not only my personal guardian angel on this pursuit downward from 10,000 feet, but he's my training wheels. Tandem jumping is the absolute fastest way to get up to speed for the first-time jumper because it requires very little training. Thirty minutes of instruction and you're golden.

For a desk jockey like me, catching air will be a once-and-a-lifetime experience, a career milestone. I knew I would be in good hands. In my mind I did not fear dying, nor getting injured, but my body tensed and told me, this is not natural, not even a little. Despite the uneasiness I felt, I pushed through this force field of doubt to get it done!

This is the same steel resolve it took me to join the Air Force, finish basic training, complete college, and graduate from officer basic training 15 years later.

Resolve is a mindset. Guardian Angel equals titanium resolve. These are the guys who serve as the 911 responders for all other branches of service, the only career in all five military branches that is trained and equipped to rescue.

Graduates of the so-called superman school they attend are few. The washout rate is 90 percent. I've even met those in my unit who were the only graduates of a class size that began with 140.

Unlike military medics, the Angels are given a weapon instead of a red cross. These gun-toting Angels are by Air Force definition a human weapons system and include pararescuemen, combat rescue officers and survival, evasion, resistance, and escape specialists.

Not all would agree, but there are a lot of reasons to strap yourself to someone else and jump through clouds. In the military it means getting a doctor into a remote area, or an interpreter, a K-9, special equipment, or in my case, a public affairs officer to describe the sport.

As I write this, somewhere on a dusty battlefield in Afghanistan, there's an injured Soldier or Marine fighting for your right to vote in elections, buy an iphone, eat what you want for dinner, and have a good day, and they've taken a bullet for those rights. Possibly bleeding and hanging on to life with a steel will at this very moment, they are relying on Guardian Angel Airmen to surf down from the sky and save their lives.

Among the airplane full of other jumpers, it's apparent that one of these is not like all of the others. My parachute harness weaves through my thighs and across my chest tightly pressing on my torso like a full-body hug, the physical security I needed to prod my mental reserve.

Soon, Hercules, the God of the aircraft has a steel grip on my heart telling me, you're afraid, but face it! I began making deals with myself, do this and I will start that diet, do this and I'll be a better wife, daughter, sister, friend, officer, etc.

While the steps to skydiving are somewhat routine and require a lot of checking and double checking, the circumstances of combat search and rescues are guaranteed to amaze. Guardian Angels have no idea what they'll face when they take the leap to save life and limb on the battlefield.

The choice of a landing site for parachuting PJs is limited by the surroundings of the rescue scene. Boats capsize in raging seas. Planes crash in rough terrain. Mountaineers suffer accidents at high altitudes. Guardian Angels brush off the danger level like it's a piece of dirt on the table.

In life, it's never the things you do that you remember; it's the things you didn't do. Those are the things that make a difference. Sometimes the things you said you would not do are the things you need to do. Something that makes a difference in your life, that takes you out of your comfort zone, that moves you forward, changes you philosophically.

The time is here. United by a harness, Charlie and I waddle to the open aircraft ramp. I swallow hard. My shoulders feel like 20-pound dumbbells. I tell Charlie, "When it's time, I'm going to need a little push."

We are at the edge of the ramp looking at the fast-moving landscape below. As Charlie moves forward so do I, my internal dialogue is loud. I feel like I'm shouting, but I'm not saying a word. The deals for a new me have been made. Every cell in me forces me to dive off the ramp into the sky.

It's done! I hear only the wind. We flip five or six times. Finally, we stabilize. I'm flying! It's more surreal than I ever imagined. I'm completely free. There's no tension left. I'm free of every worry I ever had or ever will have. I want to bottle this feeling and drink it every time I need a lift.

Along with some bragging rights, I now have a new answer to the the most common question I get from civilians upon learning I'm in the Air Force, "Do you fly?" My answer now, "Yes."

Working with a group like this, bragging rights can never hurt. Although I sit at a desk, I've earned a teeny bit of street cred. I beam. I also beam because I am privileged to rub elbows with these air benders who are American heroes through and through. The American military is in good hands. Everyone comes home by their hand.

When it comes to flying, mortals have to rely on parachutes, but even they come with training wheels. For a day I got to be like the supermen in my unit, and tasted that bittersweet old friend, resolve, routinely required of American military men and women.