Joint Personnel Recovery Exercise prepares lifesavers from all branches for duty

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Austin M. May
  • Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa Public Affairs
A joint training exercise in the Grand Bara Desert June 16 demonstrated the ability of U.S. service members based at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, to quickly locate and recover personnel from downed aircraft or from other emergencies.

Service members from each branch of the U.S. military worked together to recover six "victims" of a simulated airplane crash in a remote part of Djibouti, a scenario that could present itself at any time with dire consequences for an unprepared team.

"When you're working in a joint environment, it can never be assumed that everything will run smooth in an emergency," said Air Force Reserve Maj. John Graver, the 82nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron commander. The 82nd ERQS is made up mostly of Airmen from the Air Force Reserve Command's 304th Rescue Squadron in Portland, Ore.

The major said opportunities to train in every aspect of a rescue are rare, and must be taken advantage of whenever possible, especially in the Horn of Africa.

"We don't do this as often as those in other theaters, but we have all the assets available," Major Graver said. "We owe it to the people we may be tasked to save to practice these operations whenever we can."

The personnel recovery mission is a complicated undertaking that requires coordination with a large variety of military agencies, he said. The recent exercise aimed to test all aspects of that mission, as opposed to simply testing the execution of the rescue itself.

The rescue process starts with notification of an incident. Role players placed in the desert called in to the Joint Operation Center here, notifying the Personnel Recovery Coordination cell of an airplane crash with casualties. From that point, 82nd ERQS officials scrambled their pararescuemen who boarded two Marine Corps MH-53 Pave Low helicopters assigned to the Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464 for a ride to the crash site.

Also joining the mission were Soldiers from the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion-161st Field Artillery site security team who provided additional manpower and security while the ground operations were carried out at the crash scene. Back at Camp Lemonnier, U.S. Navy Sailors at the Captain Seth Michaud Expeditionary Medical Facility began preparations to receive the casualties once they arrived.

Major Graver said it's important to play the scenarios out from start to finish, including the notification and planning process and following up with the patient care after they've been safely returned to base.

"A lot of the exercises are based on real missions," he said. "Either we've already done the mission and have turned it into a training scenario, or it's a real mission we're prepared to do."

Air Force Capt. Roberta Krause, a Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa aeromedical evacuation liaison officer, helped coordinate the June 16 exercise and others like it, and said the lessons learned during the scenarios can mean the difference between life and death in a real-world emergency.

"If something doesn't work exactly the way we'd want it to during the exercise, it's actually beneficial because it lets us know what needs extra attention," she said. "That's one of the main reasons these practices are so crucial.  It lets everyone involved perfect their techniques so when there's a life on the line and every second counts, they aren't slowed down by little nuances that may have been discovered during training."

Major Graver said the exercise did highlight some areas that could benefit from extra attention, but he's very pleased with the way things played out. However, just because a process works well doesn't mean those involved won't continue to practice it.

"The opportunity to train and link up units like this is next to impossible in the U.S., so when we have the ability to practice together, we should," he said. "It's all in the interest of saving someone's life."