The heart of a pararescueman

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Andrea Thacker
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
When many people hear the odds are against them, they simply give up. But for Master Sgt. Robert Disney, he does just the opposite and says "challenge accepted."

Nearly 14 years ago, when a 19-year-old Robert Disney walked in to the Air Force Recruiting office and told the recruiter he had dreams of becoming a cross between a doctor and a Navy SEAL, the recruiter sent him to the back of the office to a stack of dusty pararescue pamphlets.

He said, "I think I have exactly what you're looking for, but don't get your hopes up kid. No one I've sent has made the cut, and you probably won't either."

"That's all I needed to hear and I was hooked," Sergeant Disney said. "Once I dusted off that flyer and saw a dark-haired, handsome-looking, Italian guy in a maroon beret on the cover, I read through it. I immediately knew it was something I wanted to do. I didn't stop talking about it all summer until I left for basic training."

Of the 86 students in his course, only six had what it took to overcome this challenge and graduate to become a pararescueman jumper: Sergeant Disney was one of those six. That was the first of many challenges he has met.

"I walked into the 38th Rescue Squadron, brand new, two stripes on my arm, and this big, tall, muscular guy walked in, and I recognized him immediately as being the guy from the pamphlet," Sergeant Disney said. "He said to me in a New York accent, 'Is that Bobby Disney? I hear you're a real goofy guy,' and kind of chuckled to himself for his Disney joke. That's how I met Mike (Maltz). He was the best."

That was Sergeant Disney's first encounter with the man who would eventually become his mentor and impact his career in more ways than one.

Aside from currently being known as the 347th Rescue Group's standards and evaluations superintendent, Sergeant Disney is also branded in Moody Air Force Base's rescue community as the "Black Cloud."

He gained this nickname by fellow PJs after what he called the "series of unfortunate three."

Rewind to August 2002. Seven thousand and five hundred miles away in the mountains of Afghanistan, then-Staff Sgt. Disney was on his second real-world rescue pick up.

They went to pick up two men who had been involved in a firefight and transported them to a tiny post in the middle of nowhere, Sergeant Disney said. Since they were at such a high altitude, the helicopter had to do a marginal power take off.

He said unfortunately, they were asking more than what the engines were capable of, which caused them to not have enough altitude or airspeed to avoid a "brown-out;" conditions caused by the Afghanistan's extremely fine soil, known as 'moon dust', being spun up in the air creating a dust cloud and dramatically decreasing visibility. The helicopter browned-out and he was sitting in the left-side door and began to see the ground racing toward them.

"It felt like we were coming down and fast," said Sergeant Disney with an intense stare. "So I determined it'd be best if I wasn't sitting in the doorway if we did impact the ground. I moved inside the helicopter then I heard the left gunner yelling 'STOP LEFT, STOP LEFT.' About that time I felt a really hard impact.

"Somehow, I don't know how ... I wasn't in that door when it slammed shut. Angels on my shoulder, right?" Sergeant Disney said.

"The rotors were chewing into the ground and there were no blades on it anymore," he said. "The engines are full power and it was just getting louder and louder, higher pitched, and higher pitched, and I'm just laying there with everything on me and it's very, very calm ... serene. It wasn't a struggle to get out. There wasn't anything I could do. It was just laying there until all the violent motion stopped. Knowing what might have been coming was the worst part."

Finally the pilots shut down the engines and Sergeant Disney said he recalls everything going quiet to the point of deathly quiet and then completely soundless unless the helicopter's team leader snapped everyone back to reality by yelling out "SOUND OFF BY CREW POSITION." Once they sounded off the team lead yelled "GET OUT."

Something saved the whole crew that night, maybe it was Sergeant Disney's 'angels' but whatever it was, one pararescueman thought he'd already survived the worst and reenlisted seven days later.

Six weeks later, a different enlistment, on a different aircraft and in a different country, Sergeant Disney would witness an event that would rock him to the core.

"We starting hearing radio chatter of a boy and girl who fell down a hill," he said. "We started referring to this rescue as Jack and Jill. In a C-130 Hercules, we launched out of Uzbekistan, and two helicopters launched out Afghanistan. It was one of the darkest nights I've ever seen through night vision goggles. Dark as can be ... could barely see the ground. We refueled both helicopters by colored light signals because of how dark it was."

He said he was watching through the side window of the C-130. He could see the ground through his night-vision goggles then he would lose it again. He could swear they were punching in and out of clouds even 400 feet above the ground. Then he felt a familiar tug of the second helicopter disconnecting from the refueling hose.

"Not five seconds later, I saw a bright flash of light that flooded out my NVGs," he said. "Then, all I heard was blood curdling screaming coming from the loadmaster. It looked like an explosion. It lit up the whole country side. I thought someone had been hit by a surface-to-air missile, and we were next. Then I heard 'helicopter crash, seven o'clock.'"

The wheels in the veteran PJ's head began turning, knowing they were at 400 feet and configured to jump, he was ready. The combat rescue officer aboard the C-130 made the decision not to jump until they knew more because the second helicopter was performing self search and rescue and already found three of the six crash victims.

Because the area in which the crash happened was unknown and determined by the Joint Personnel Recovery Center to be hostile, the crew was recalled back to home base and Sergeant Disney had to leave the crash site against his will.

"When I got back on the ground, I got the word of the guys who were on the bird," Sergeant Disney said. "One of them was Mike Maltz. I can't tell you how I will always feel about that night. I mean, the Airmen's Creed says 'I will never leave Airman behind' ... and we had to leave guys behind, on the ground that night. Everything in me wishes I could have jumped in, I could have done something.

"It was like losing a father, losing a mentor and losing a friend all at the same time," said a choked-up Sergeant Disney. "It was one of the hardest moments, it was hard."

A few months passed since the tragic event of losing the iconic figure who graced the cover of his recruiting pamphlet, and Sergeant Disney was yet again deployed and back in the mix of things. Little did he know he was about to stumble upon the last event in his serious of unfortunate three.

"It was April 18, Good Friday," Sergeant Disney said. "I know the date because I had been practicing to play my guitar at the Easter Sunday service. We were going on a training mission or exercise. It was about a 45-minute flight to get where we were going. When the pilots said it's out there, when I looked out I saw what looked like people."

By the time they were committed to land, the people were gone, Sergeant Disney said. Then he heard two sounds, the second sound confirming they were taking gunfire from at least four people.

"I racked my weapon. As I moved to sit down, I brought my weapon up, and I can see flashes now coming out the back now and (with) one of those flashes there was a weird disturbance of air," he said. "Then came a sensation of two things at the same time. It was like someone swung a baseball bat in my face and the other was a shockwave that rippled through my whole body."

Defending the helicopter and killing the bad guys who were shooting at them was he said was his only thought at the time.

"I looked over at the guy across from me and yelled 'I'M SHOT!!! I'M HIT!!' and then I moved into a position to return fire. He yells 'shoot back shoot back shoot back,'" Sergeant Disney said.

Within seconds of the helicopter touching down, three people were wounded. Through the barrage of gunfire Sergeant Disney, with a gunshot wound to right side of his cheek, returned fire to the enemy. By the time they departed the scene, only 30 seconds had lapsed since initial contact.

Much like the first helicopter crash that occurred not even a year prior, all the crew survived and returned to base to seek medical care.

Upon his return to Moody AFB, the Purple Heart recipient said he could have counted the number of people who weren't there to greet him. Now being back stateside, Sergeant Disney could focus on getting back to normal and performing with his guitar in clubs around Valdosta.

Jumping to two years later, the only thing that was missing in Sergeant Disney's life was a little romance. After searching, he found Tess, a local girl from Nashville, Ga. The two soon fell in love, but the Air Force had other plans, sending the master sergeant to RAF Mildenhall, England.

Knowing that Tess was the one, Sergeant Disney had but one choice and that was to ask for her hand over the phone.

"I asked Tess to marry me on Christmas day over the phone," Sergeant Disney said. "I sent her a ring in the mail. The company sent her both of the rings at the same time and she opened the wedding band first and was like 'Awww.'"

Tess Disney laughed and said, "It was messed up," as she continued to tell the story. "This is a wedding band, this isn't an engagement ring ... I was like, wait a minute that's for later on."

Now nearly six years later, back at Moody AFB, the Disneys are living happily with two horses and three dogs.

When asked how Tess handles her husband's many deployments, knowing that his nickname is Black Cloud, she responded "I'm a strong wife and I have strong faith. Worrying isn't going to help anything.

"This is what I tell people, I imagine Robert is off staying at some resort," she said laughing. "I know he has someone watching out for him. He's been through all that already. He's here for a reason."

So after all that has happened in his life, this PJ still has one ongoing challenge to face and that is living up to his name.

"Someone I looked up to once said to me, "When people meet you, you're either going to be one of two things," Sergeant Disney said. "You're either going to be a big disappointment, a dirt bag who got shot in the face, or you're actually going to be that guy, the one people can look up to."

These words were something that Sergeant Disney said changed his life and since then, he hasn't stopped saying, "Challenge accepted."