Alaska Combat Search and Rescue

After four years as an Air National Guard flight surgeon for the 173d Fighter Wing in Klamath Falls Oregon I decided to transfer units and states to the Alaska Air National Guard to be part of the 210th Rescue Squadron.

I loved my time with the 173d and in many ways my unit had become a second family so it was not an easy decision to leave. Liz and I were spending more time in Alaska as most of her family was now up there. She was looking to transfer, and we decided it would make the most sense to be in the same location for drill, and to just be able to spend more time in Alaska in general.

Over the summer of 2020 while visiting Alaska I met some people from JBER (Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson) and learned that the 210th rescue squadron was looking for a flight doc. After meeting the unit and understanding the mission, it seemed like a great fit.

The 210th is a helicopter rescue squadron that flies the HH-60 Pave Hawk. They are part of the 176 Operations Group in the Alaskan Air National Guard. There are two other rescue squadrons in this group, the 211th HC-130s, and the 212th which consist of pararescuemen (PJs). Together these three squadrons make up what is known as the "Rescue Triad". Operating as a unit the Triad main goal is provide Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR). The main intent of this capability in the Air Force is to be able to rescue downed fighter pilots. In the state of Alaska however they are on 24 hour alert assisting in the state's search and rescue operations. When Alaska has rescue missions that are outside of the capability of local fire and rescue they alert the military to assist. This happens on a weekly basis making the 176 Ops Group one of the busiest military rescue units in the world. The missions range from picking up an injured hiker off a mountain top to rescuing an ectopic pregnancy from a remote Alaskan village.

The 210th was looking to bring a flight doc on as a Squadron Medical Element or (SME). This was a bit different than the traditional role I have been used to in the guard working directly for a medical group. As a SME flight surgeon the idea is that my first priority would be to the aeromedical health of the squadron. This might be anything from assisting in routine flight medicine care such as waiver writing and physicals, to more mission specific care such as helping to develop musculoskeletal training programs. I'm still a drill status guardsman, and only planning on working in-person here one week a quarter, so finding ways to stay connected to the unit and be available for questions will be important.

One of the common denominators of being a flight surgeon is the opportunity to fly. In most assignments the main motivation for flight surgeons to to fly is to gain a level of familiarization with the airframe, stressors of flight, and generally just get to know the aircrew better. I've always been fairly onboard with this concept, flying is also just a huge incentive of being a flight surgeon, however I've also felt like deadweight a lot of times. The F-15 was incredible to fly in, but I felt like after basic familiarization I had a hard time justifying my role as a medical provider by taking up space in the back of the jet.

Flying with the 210th on the HH-60 is a different story. The combat part of combat search and rescue means that the airframe is armed with either two 50 cal machine guns or two mini-guns. Outside of JBER there is a large firing range where they practice live fire training quite often. It is a requirement that whenever they are shooting the guns in flight a medic has to be present. As I understand this in case of the unlikely event that something mis-fires with the gun, or a finger gets caught in a slider. So now when I fly I at least have an active role to provide stand-by emergency medical care. It's probably worth clarifying that as a flight doc I'm not part of the actual rescue missions. My main role is to support the community that flies and operates the helicopter. The PJs from the 212th are the ones that execute the actual rescues and deliver care. I'm sure in the future I'll understand more about this, and if there are ways I can be involved. Overall I'm pretty excited to just be part of the rescue community in anyway as this is definitely one of the coolest missions I've been part of.

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