Story Highlights• Air Force Combat Search and Rescue teams usually shun the press
• Their work demands anonymity and secrecy
• One team member describes their personalities thusly: 'obstinate' and 'defiant'
By Alex Quade
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AVON PARK AIR FORCE RANGE, Florida (CNN) -- The U.S. Air Force's Combat Search and Rescue community is close-knit, secretive, tight.
They do not usually let outsiders into their world. And rightly so: they must be able to continue to do their high-risk work behind enemy lines without fear of compromise or capture. Because it's not just downed aircrews the teams go after. They also recover other special targets and go on other missions they can't discuss.
So they shun the press, avoid interviews and do not usually allow their faces shown on camera. But they allowed me very rare access into their world over several months in order to get a sense of who they are and how they do their dangerous jobs. Because of the nature of their work, these "Air Commandos" and special rescue aviators are identified here only by their call signs; no ranks, no full names. (Read Alex Quade's news story about Air Force search and rescue teams)
"The guys that are doing this -- It's a small group of guys," says "Mark," a pararescueman or PJ, which is short for parajumper. "The guys who are doing it aren't in it for the publicity. We're not in it to be on camera. We're not in it for the 'thank you's.' It's not about that. We do it, because in our hearts it's the right thing to do."
Air Force officials credit their Combat Search and Rescue teams with more than 750 saves in Iraq and Afghanistan since September 11, 2001. They also credit these units with saving more than 4,000 lives during and after Hurricane Katrina. The high-stress work often puts these airmen on the razor's edge between saving a life and losing their own.
Over months of reporting, these elite airmen opened-up to me and began sharing stories, photos and amateur video from the front lines: rescues from canals and sandstorms in Iraq, minefields and high mountains in Afghanistan, often under high threat and amid gunfire. (Gallery: View photos these airmen took on their missions)
"You have a task at hand," PJ "John" tells me. "If you get off of that task thinking that 'I might die' then you're not going to do what you're supposed to do."
PJ "Kyle" agrees. "You try not to think about death at any time. A lot of rescue is having the right mind-set going into it -- that you're going to succeed in the mission no matter what. If you start doubting yourself out there, you're going to set yourself up for failure."
"We do a lot of dangerous things that are really on the edge," PJ "Chuck" says. "Chuck" knows first-hand. He's recovering from wounds and broken bones after falling nearly 60 feet to the ground in Iraq, while fast-roping from a "Jolly" helicopter. He says he's itching to get back to full-duty with his team.
Combat Search And Rescue is made up of Pararescuemen (PJs); Combat Rescue Officers (CROs); Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) specialists; as well as elite pilots and crews of specialized "Jolly" helicopters, A-10 fighters known as "Sandy", and high-tech reconnaissance and refueling aircraft. The entire operation was part of Air Force Special Operations Command, but recently moved under the umbrella of Air Combat Command.
I ask PJ "Mark" if knowing that there's a unit standing on alert, dedicated to rescuing and recovering U.S. troops when things go wrong, allows the troops, PJs included, to take more risks.
"I wouldn't say take more risks, but maybe be a little bit more aggressive," PJ "Mark" said. "And that's what war is all about: aggression, controlled aggression, management of violence. So knowing that there's somebody there to pick you up when something goes wrong, I think is a nice thing to have."
Combat Search And Rescue teams were involved in the Special Forces rescue of Private Jessica Lynch in Iraq. Hollywood dramatized other rescues in movies like "Black Hawk Down," depicting the real-life rescue of U.S. Army Rangers and others wounded and killed in helicopter crashes during the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993; and "The Perfect Storm," depicting rescues off the New England coast.
The pararescuemen maintain their edge through training, training and more training. When not at war, they are preparing for any situation that might pop up in a war zone. "We bring versatility to the fight," PJ "Mark" tells me, "The term I like to use is, 'Rigidly flexible.'"
Not only must they be up to the physically grueling demands of the job, but, I learn, they must have type-A personalities focused on working as a tight team.
"Obstinate, stubborn, just some characteristic traits," PJ "Mark" laughs. "Defiant. Someone tells me, 'you can't do that,' just makes me want to do that all the more."
It's the same for the other members of the Combat Search And Rescue team, from the pilots and aircrews, to the Combat Rescue Officers and Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) specialists.
"If we're tasked to execute this type of mission, doesn't matter what service, male, female, they're our brothers and sisters in arms," SERE specialist "Jesse" said. "They're also citizens of United States of America and very valuable tools and assets for our country. We are going to do everything feasible to bring that person back."
During a training exercise, CNN Correspondent Alex Quade is hoisted into a helicopter by an Air Force pararescuer.