Airmen provide confidence, combat power for ground forces

  • Published
  • By Capt. Erick Saks
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Poised on the helipad of an isolated forward operating base, they wait. Hoping for the best, they are prepared for the worst. Their mantra, "a slow day for the Pedros is a good day for coalition forces."

The 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron's dual-role mission of conducting personnel recovery and casualty evacuation operations for Regional Command East is a source of pride for the unit, as are the "Pedro" patches they wear on their shoulders.

"Pedro was just a call sign," said Lt. Col. Steve Gregg, the 83rd ERQS commander. "It started in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, flying the old HH-43s (Huskies). Because the aircrews were so quick to rescue the guys in southern Vietnam, the Pedro call sign became synonymous with being saved."

When the rescue squadrons were activated in Afghanistan to perform the casualty evacuation mission with the HH-60G Pave Hawks, the units elected to once again use the Pedro call sign. Like the Pedros of the Mekong, they quickly became known for the fastest rescues and recoveries of wounded troops in the area, said Colonel Gregg, who is based at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.

The call sign generally reserved for rescue squadrons is Jolly, which is still used in personnel recovery operations in Iraq; however, the unique role of the operations in Afghanistan prompted the name change.

"Personnel recovery is the broader umbrella that covers all of the functions we do from the noncombatant evacuation operations, humanitarian relief operations and defense support to civil authorities, to the most difficult operations which would be combat search and rescue," Colonel Gregg said. "Here, we do dual role (personnel recovery) and casevac. We still maintain an Afghanistan-wide personnel recovery mission, but since those are unusual, they gave us to the regional commands to do casevac missions."

The colonel said their day-to-day mission is casevac, broken into two basic areas -- point of injury and patient transfer.

"Point of injury is where we go right to the incident site, whether it was an (improvised explosive device) blast, a (troops in contact incident) or something along those lines," he said. "Fortunately, there hasn't been a lot of business in that area, and we'd like to keep it that way. Patient transfers are when we'll go out to the (forward operating bases) and pick up people who need to come in to Craig Joint Theater Hospital at (Bagram Airfield)."

The Pedro mission also extends to providing casevac support to planned ground operations. In these cases, the unit may reposition, or repo, personnel and aircraft to FOBs to cut the evacuation time.

"Repo operations are exclusively a POI mission," Colonel Gregg said. "It's a temporary use of strategic Air Force assets at the most tactical level to reduce evacuation times."

The presence alone of the rescue squadron at one of these FOBs prior to a ground operation is generally enough to raise the morale and hope of the Soldiers involved, according to the colonel.

"We don't have to fly a single flight to accomplish our mission," he added. "It's just our arrival on a FOB. I can't quantify it, but you can see the sense of relief on the Soldiers faces. When you hear the Pedro call sign, when you see a casevac helicopter that's dedicated to you, you know your chain of command is going all in behind you to help minimize that risk to you and your life. That's supremely important."

Prior to their departure for the repo mission, Brig. Gen. Jack L. Briggs, the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing commander, spoke to the Pedros.

"You will do great things when called upon," he said. "What you provide is combat power. You provide confidence to the guy on the ground. No matter how bad it gets, he knows you're going to get there. That is how they have the confidence to lace up their boots and accomplish the mission."

The Pedros are a close-knit community including a cross section of career fields including aircrews, pararescuemen, maintenance and other support functions. Colonel Gregg thinks of the squadron as a family.

"We rely on each other, and we trust each other," said the colonel. "Rescue is not a job, it's a lifestyle. If it's just a job to you, then you'll just be going through the motions. Everybody on this battlefield deserves something more. You have to be committed to this."

During his 20-year flying career, including eight deployments, Colonel Gregg has amassed countless stories about his interactions with ground forces, but he said one of his favorites is from a repo operation during his current rotation to Afghanistan.

"I just like to go out and walk the line with all of the infantrymen before the operation," said the colonel who served as an Army aviator prior to joining the Air Force. "I'll go around thanking them, telling them that it's an honor to be with them. During one of these walks, I came across this one sergeant. I told him how honored I was to meet him, and he said 'I'm honored to meet you, sir.' After I passed him, I looked back and said, 'Well, here's to not meeting you again in the next four to five days.' He looked at me, got this real serious look on his face and said 'Sir, would you shake my hand and guarantee you won't meet me again during the next couple of days?' I told him 'Of course, here's to not meeting you again.' It was amazing; the electricity in the air in that moment, and I think it really calmed him down."

Fortunately, that Soldier never had to meet Colonel Gregg and the Pedros on the battlefield.