The United States Air Force Combat Air Rescue community lost 7 of its members last Thursday, March 15th. The HH 60 Pave Hawk Helicopter deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve went down in Western Iraq near the Syrian border.
Those killed include members of 2 reserve units from New York and Florida and an active duty squadron from Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia. Although the military is still investigating what happened, the event illustrates the dangerous business it is to fly on these missions and the drastic effect on the families of those who gave their lives.
I was introduced to the combat air rescue concept in the movie, The Bridge at Toko-Ri (1954) and the image of Mickey Rooney as Chief Petty Officer Mike Forney flying the Sikorsky H035-1 and wearing a green top hat and scarf. The nobility of the concept enhances the image of the medic in the battle field that sometimes goes unnoticed because he is not about shooting guns, but about saving lives.
The combat air rescue concept matured during the Vietnam War as did the term Jolly Green Giant applied to the identification of the aircraft and its mission. Today, the Jolly Green Giant is the image, symbol and metaphor of Air Force Combat air rescue units.
So is their motto: These Things We Do, That Others May Live, that in itself represents a profound statement. It also suggests a noble mission in the middle of combat and surrounded by the wounded, the dead and the dying.
The rescue process in war is an armed battle that does not end until the victims are aboard the rescue aircraft and brought to the base and safety. Going into battle with the notion that you are there not to kill the enemy but to save your own, takes special kind of warriors that understand that the rules of engagement for them are up-side-down.
Combat air rescue success is about a genuine exposure to death with the goal of bringing out others alive. Life is such a precious commodity that risking death to achieve it is an epic contradiction willingly accepted by the Jolly Green Giants who live by the code and the motto.
Three years ago, I had the honor of visiting our son and his family in Okinawa and witnessed the change of command ceremony that put him in charge of the 33rd Combat Air Rescue Squadron. The 33rd is a storied command that dates back to 1952.
The day before the ceremony there was another ceremony of sorts involving the out-going commander, his last flight as the leader and the physical imprint of his legacy. After his flight, he was water-hosed and his feet painted green so that his footprints could be added to the history of the 33rd.
The green feet of the Jolly Green Giant are the central image associated with Combat Air Rescue. They are both a symbol and a promise that if Americans go down in battle, they will be joined by a very special group that will risk everything to get them out.
The rescue aircraft that went down on March 15th represent the ultimate sacrifice of warriors doing good. Their brand of goodness transcends military battles and geopolitics.
Deployments to faraway places to save the lives of others is a noble act that is sometimes seen as secondary to the strategy of “attack and destroy.” Tell that to their families or those rescued by the Jolly Greens.