A few days ago, the Air Force’s elite Air Commandos once more proved their worth by saving the life of a 16-year-old hiker who had gotten lost in Mt. St. Helens, Washington State.
On September 28, a 16-year-old boy had gone hiking with his mother and 13-year-old sister in the Hummocks Trailhead of Mt. St. Helens. During a bathroom stop, he was separated from them. His mother and sister tried to find him but to no avail. As the hours began to pass, they called the local authorities.
A 12-man search-and-rescue team comprised of Pararescuemen and Survival, Escape, Resistance, and Evasion (SERE) specialists from the 304th Rescue Squadron was called up to assist the local Cowlitz County Sheriff’s department in locating the missing teen.
By the point that the team gathered for their briefing and mission planning, the 16-year-old teen had been missing for more than 30 hours.
“I was really impressed with all the rescue organizations and volunteers,” said Senior Airman Joseph, a recently qualified Pararescueman, in a press release. “I thought the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s did a great job organizing and coordinated the search efforts. For me, it was a good first mission that opened up a lot of opportunities for integrative experiences with other official search and rescue groups.”
The hike toward the place where the teen had gone lost was arduous. Steep, rugged terrain surrounded by ponds and marshes made the Guardian Angels’ work tough. According to the local sheriff, people are known to have been stuck on those marshes for days on end. The terrain was so rough that not even the team’s specialized SXV and ATV off-road vehicles could not be of assistance.
“We are supporting the Sheriff’s department and that working relationship is very key to our successful rescues,” said Major Phil, a Combat Rescue Officer (CRO) and the officer in charge during the rescue.“Fortunately, we also have a great relationship with the other local Sherriff’s department and the civilian search and rescue organizations at Mt. Hood.”
In the end, a rescue dog assigned to the team managed to find the missing teen at night. The 16-year-old boy had climbed on a tree after falling from a cliff and getting accosted by wildlife. He only had minor injuries and was able to get out without any medical assistance.
What makes these rescues remarkable is the fact that the Pararescuemen and SERE specialists who conducted them are serving part-time and have other full-time jobs.
“Every rescue is different, based on who’s lost, who’s injured, the terrain, the weather; every rescue is unique,” added Major Phil. “The only thing that’s the same is the equipment, which helps us get out the door quickly.”
That’s the second time that Air Commandos from the 304th Rescue Squadron participate in a real-world rescue operation in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. Earlier in September, a combined team from the 304th Rescue Squadron and 125th Special Tactics Squadron saved a man and his daughter who had gone missing in Mt. Hood.
The 304th Rescue Squadron has some history with Mt. St. Helens. On May 19, 1980, the active volcano erupted wreaking havoc: 57 people were killed, scores injured, and 250 homes destroyed. The eruption, which is the deadliest in U.S. history, cost almost $3.5 billion in today’s money. In the hours following the catastrophic explosion, the Pararescuemen and crews of the 304th Rescue Squadron conducted more than 100 search and rescue missions, saving numerous lives.