An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Wounded Angels find solace at 6,000 feet

  • Published
  • By Tech Sgt. Peter Dean
  • 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
Countless people have experienced the peaceful serenity that can be found at the Cloud Cap Inn here, but for most, the road that brought them to this magical place didn't begin after being ejected from a Pave Hawk HH-60G helicopter as it tumbled down a mountainside in Afghanistan .

Staff Sgt. Scott Bilyeu, a medically retired active duty pararescueman, was one of seven wounded Guardian Angel Airmen who participated in a weeklong healing retreat July 22. Guardian Angels are an U.S. Air Force weapons system comprised of combat rescue officers, pararescuemen, and survival, evasion, resistant, and escape specialists know as SERE.

"The goal was to help with the healing process," said Laura Lerdall, That Others May Live Foundation, deputy executive director. "Every detail of this event was designed to help with the healing; the location, the activities, the speakers and the tours."

After hours of sitting on alert in Afghanistan, the nighttime call came in, a life threatening injury requiring immediate medical evacuation from the battlefield. Bilyeu and his fellow Rescue Airmen were airborne within minutes, en route to a location that would put them in a precarious situation. As the Pave Hawk attempted to land on a mountainside ledge, the rotor wash created an arena of dust and debris, eliminating all visibility, a condition know as a brown out. With the loss of all visibility and the inability to detect any reference points, the main rotor clipped the mountainside sending the Pave Hawk and the six Rescue Airmen onboard into a violent roll down the mountainside. Before the dust had a chance to settle, Bilyeu's fellow PJ, Master Sgt. Paul Schultz was evaluating the situation, systematically searching for all crewmembers and assessing all injured. One crewmember perished that night.

Although all survivors sustaining some degree of injury. The most severely injured was Bilyeu, who in preparation for the rescue had removed his lifeline, a harness that tethered him to the Pave Hawk. As the Pave Hawk plummeted down the mountain, Bilyeu was ejected and sustained numerous broken bones and severe head injuries.

Bilyeu recounted the details of that ill-fated day as it was told to him. As a result of the crash, Bilyeu was in a coma for a month-and-a-half and sustained a traumatic brain injury. He does not remember the details of that day.

"There are days that I feel better, but they are days I taste it on my lips; I speak too slow, or too fast, I stutter, said Bilyeu."Pararescue was my life; I knew when I saw that [PJ] pamphlet I knew what I wanted to do. Now I feel like I'm back in high school. I can't figure out what I want, or can do."

Other wounded Guardian Angels at the Cloud Cap Inn could relate. Although their stories differ the end results were the same, changed men.

"When you get injured, you come back and you're removed from your unit, you sort of get isolated," said Staff Sgt. Jimmy Settle, 212th Rescue Squadron, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. "You feel not so much it's your fault that you can't play with your boys [rescue team], but you feel that you're not worthy, you go to a dark place. This [retreat] connects you with dudes who get it."

Settle can relate to Bilyeu, as he also struggles to cope with what most would consider simple daily tasks. While on a rescue mission in Afghanistan in 2010, the Pave Hawk Settle was on, came under fire. Rounds from AK-47 assault rifles pelted the chopper from all directions. Rounds penetrated the floorboards of the chopper; upon impact one round fragmented, sending it on a trajectory that went between Settle's helmet and forehead, finally lodging into his scalp. The injury ultimately left Settle with traumatic brain injury and struggling with daily responsibilities, such as remembering to shave, how to wear his uniform, and even recognizing his wife.

"I'm walking around with my cool- man beret, that beret that I worked so many years for, and now, if you run down the checklist, I am not qualified," said Settle. "I feel like I am putting on a costume, a PJ costume. I feel I am not worthy and I don't belong anymore. It's very lonely and leads to dark places in the mind. Coming out here kinda stokes the fire, these guys understand, they have walked the same path I have."

The love that Chief Master Sgt. Richard Konopka, Air Force Reserve Command Headquarters, Robins Air Force Base, Ga., has for the Mount Hood, prompted him to call the That Other May Live Foundation and present his idea to bring wounded Angels together on the mountain.

"I'm very familiar with the beauty of Mount Hood and its tranquility, so this seemed the perfect place for our veterans to recharge themselves after very horrific, life-changing events," said Konopka.

According to Konopka there are approximately 500 PJs in the Air Force, with that few, many of the wounded Angels knew each other, either from indoctrination school, training together or combat. To rekindle the relationships and rehash old times, the retreat kicked-off with the wounded Angels coming together with Angels from the 304th Rescue Squadron, Portland Ore., who co-sponsored the retreat. All climb aboard a Timberline Lodge snow cat track vehicle that took them thousands of feet up the north side of Mount Hood where they bonded over lunch.

The rest of the week the wounded Angels were hosted by the Crag Rats, an all-volunteer mountain rescue group that maintains the U.S. Forest Service-owned Cloud Cap Inn.

"It's a real pleasure to host this event, it's a natural fit," said Bill Pattison, Crag Rats spokesperson. "The Crag Rats and the 304th have a long history of working together.".

All details throughout the week were taken care of, transportation, shelter, daily menu and all activities. Angels spent their days, hiking Mount Hood, swimming at a local swim hole, fly fishing, and visiting local attractions, but most of all enjoying the serenity that Mount Hood has to offer.

"A dude who is messed up in the brain, you guys made this so awesome for me," said Settle. "You created an environment that I didn't have to worry about the little stuff. I could focus on the social stuff and working on me. Thank you guys, thank you."

By all accounts the inaugural That Others May Live Wounded Angel Retreat was a success, and plans are in the works to make this an annual event.

"We are very pleased on how the retreat turned out," said Maj. Christopher Bernard, 304th RQS, combat rescue officer and retreat organizer. "We gained an understanding of what it is to be a wounded Angel, we are all touched,"

"This week really exceeded my expectations," said Lerdall. The retreats, which are open to all rescue personnel not just Angels and is a 501(c)3 non-profit charitable organization (Combined Federal Campaign number 61226). (No federal endorsement implied or intended.)