Tag Archives: Pedro 66

The Burden of Command

23 Jun

20120914-125426.jpgTwo weeks ago was the third anniversary of Pedro 66. Mike Flores, Ben White, and Joel Gentz are still gone but never forgotten. In the past weeks, as I anticipated the day, I reminisced about a couple things – doing a “backcountry” travel day with Flo and the guys up on Mt Lemmon in some truly awful snow conditions; Ben showing up at the 48th with a busted leg and me telling him to heal up because the unit needed him; and driving in to Shaw AFB the morning of June 9th, 2010, and hearing an NPR report about a helicopter shot down in Afghanistan.

But what’s been most on my mind is how something like Pedro 66 begins to fit into the narrative of my life and career. I’ve been in this business for 14 years now, and all my career I heard other officers talk about this thing called “the burden of command.” As it was explained to me, it meant all or some of the following:

- You’re the first to show up to work and the last to leave

- You’re the guy who takes the blame when things go bad, but get none of the credit when things go right

- A commander is aloof from his men and lives a solitary existence due to the distance required by professionalism

- It’s your tail on the line, so you do whatever it takes to protect your career

- The decisions you make could be the difference between life and death for your subordinates

To be fair, I’m in the Air Force, so that last bullet was always delivered in a fighter jock-specific fashion, and always received with a high level of skepticism. After all, the Air Force I joined in 1999 wasn’t doing anything dangerous but a few patrols over northern and southern Iraq. As a young officer, it seemed to me that this whole “burden” thing was more about sucking up extra office work.

Then came 9/11, and with it, a whole litany of experiences I could not have foreseen on 2 Jun 99, when I threw my cap in the air at the Thunderbirds overhead. I began to find myself on the ground, outside the wire, in strange places where someone might be inclined to kill me or my men. I was a leader, but never a commander, and it’s one thing to make a call that end your own life; it’s another thing altogether to stay behind and send your people to do something that might kill them all.

When I left the 48th in 2009, I had a talk with the men in the unit theater. Flo and Ben were definitely there. On the wall, to my left, was the Rescue Creed, and it ends with “These Things We Do, That Others May Live.” I reminded them of that last bit, which implies the possibility of a trade. Our lives for the lives of those in need. It’s not “Maybe we do these things, if it’s safe, not scary, and only if no one dies.” I wanted them to remember that last part, since the Air Force does a great job of reinforcing decisions made solely on CYA. But I’m not sure I fully grasped the whole idea. It is, after all, one thing to say, and another to do.

When Pedro 66 went down, my real education began. Obviously, they were not under my command, seeing as I was at a headquarters job and they were downrange. But the pain I felt when those men died was a reminder that this idea of sending men into a fight, this business of leading them; held consequences of a nature that must be felt to be understood. I was sobered. The Rescue Creed moved from a quote we used to shout when we were cold, wet, tired and hungry in training; to a sharp-edged reality resting in a cold light. That’s right, these things I will do. And the consequences will be mine to bear.

Last year, my education continued. While downrange, one of my men was wounded in action under my command. To the rest of the maneuver military, this might seem a “so what?” kind of deal. Happens all the time, right? But the rest of the maneuver military typically command their own; infantry officers command infantry, armor officers command armor, and special ops officers command their own operators. Due to our incredibly small footprint, Pararescuemen and Combat Rescue Officers have always worked for Rescue helicopter and Hercules pilots. Until a few years ago, no Combat Rescue Officer ever commanded a deployed squadron.

I’d sent out the men on a risky mission, a long ways away, to help Afghans hit by a suicide bomber. They were finally on their way home, two hours away still, when a call came on the radio from one of our helicopters that one of my men was a “Category A” or urgent surgical patient. No names, no further info. Let me tell you something. I’ve perched solo in some precarious spots across the globe. Hung it out there more than a few times on my own. But the loneliest place I’ve ever been was the seat I occupied for the next hour, agonizing over who it might be and what might happen.

Since that night, as my friend and team mate has undergone months painful surgery and rehabilitation, I feel like I finally understand the true burden of command. The true burden is the harsh reality that you, as a commander, are the end of the line. And not just for stupid, meaningless things like whether or not your troops are accomplishing yet another mandated web-training module or taking fitness tests on time. Their lives literally hang in your hands. The decisions you make might take the lives or limbs of those who look to your decisions. These things might happen on a successful mission, let alone what might happen on a poorly executed operation. And you need to understand that when bad things happen, you will carry that weight for a good long while.

Remembering Pedro 66

9 Jun

Mike and Ben

I’m pretty sure everyone who reads this blog knows why I wear the bracelet in this photo. If you’re new, it’s my way of remembering two PJs who at one time, worked under my command, and perished when their USAF rescue helicopter, call sign “Pedro 66″ was shot down on June 9th, 2010. Mike Flores and Ben White weren’t the only ones who died that day, either. Dave Wisniewski, Dave Smith, and Joel Gentz, the first CRO to die in combat; none of them came home that day. When I found out, I had moved to another job in South Carolina, and I worked deployed USAF rescue issues. I got into the office, and one of the guys sat me down and told me we lost one of our helos, and some PJs were dead. I made some calls, and learned that Mike and Ben were gone.

Sometimes I wonder why I took it so hard. I wasn’t super close to either. Mike was one of my troops for well over a year, but Ben had just shown up to the unit before I left, so I didn’t know him that well. At the end of the day, all I can come up with is shared experience of the beret. We’re all cut from the same cloth, PJs and CROs. We sweat and bleed and drown through nearly two years of chest-beating attrition. We are the 7% percent who make it from start to finish. Some like to compare us to the Green Berets, SEALs, or whatever. But to be honest, there is no comparison. There are only a couple of hundred of us vs. the thousands of Green Berets and SEALs. And where those guys have dozens of different missions to train for, we have one: Save Lives. We’re apples to their oranges, and that’s all there is to it. So when one goes down, we all feel it. It’s impossible not to.

Too, I think of my guys on the other helicopter, watching their team mates crash, then going in to rescue their own. I think what it must be like to see a guy with whom maybe you were just sitting around with at the Tactical Ops Center. Maybe you were eating some merms, playing some xBox, or just sitting around BS’ing. The call comes, you kit up, and run to the helicopters: there’s work to be done. Maybe on the way in, you do a radio check with the team on the other bird, hear their voices coming calm through your headset: I have you Lima Charlie. And then things go horribly wrong. The last words you hear from Pedro 66 are from the pilot, saying, “I’m hit. We’re going in.” You see the aircraft crash, but you have to bury all the emotion. Because now, all the training you’ve done for anonymous incidents and events has become entirely personal. Saving lives takes on a whole new meaning when it’s one of your own. So, that’s what you do. You cut your friends from the burning wreckage and pull the surviving aircrew from the hulk. You put your friends in body bags, the living on litters and do your best to keep them alive. All the while understanding that the enemy is ready to do to you what they did to your friends. Then it’s over, but see, it really isn’t. You get to live with this shit the rest of your life.

I guess maybe when you roll all this stuff together, I understand a little better why I took it so hard. I just felt it.

At the time, I was a couple of weeks out from Grandma’s Marathon, and when 66 went down, I wasn’t sure I could do the race any more. I’d suffered some training setbacks and some injuries, and 66 kind of put me over the edge. I was an absolute mess at the memorial, and while there’s no reason to be ashamed, I guess sometimes I think I didn’t earn the right to be so broken-up about it. At some point, I realized that the best way to honor Mike and Ben was to continue on with racing. If you’ve never read my race report, you can do so here. It was a pretty meaningful day for me, and I hope you get that in reading the race report.

Today’s the two year anniversary of Pedro 66, and I’m still not sure what it all means. I know I have a very small part in all of it, but not a day goes by where I don’t think of Mike and Ben, or my buddy Doug on trail, in some way. Sometimes, I’ll think about Mike, or “Flo,” as we called him, and it’s hard to imagine him gone. In the fall of 2009, from my new job in SC, I ended up in Afghanistan at the same time as my old unit in Tucson, so I went out to FOB Bastion to see how the guys were doing. I spent a few hours playing Halo on the xBox 360 with the boys, and Flo was a frigging ninja at Halo. Under the handle “Flo Nasty,” we simply slayed and sniped us all. I played under a decidedly un-PC moniker, “SquintyIdMother,” and at one point I think I even tried going head-to-head with Flo Nasty, with disastrous results. He killed me about 20 times, and just kind of chuckled in his typically understated way. It was incredibly frustrating and funny at the same time, and after a while I called Uncle and retired.

It’s a happy memory for me. Not a heavy deal, not a lot of meaning attached to the shared experience of a video game. Just two brothers having fun.

Flo Nasty: we miss you buddy. Blue skies to you all.

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