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Local unit flies Iraq rescues

Reservists go from Mt. Hood heroics to saving downed Marines in gulf

Ten days ago, four members of the Air Force Reserve's 939th Rescue Wing, based in Portland, flew deep into Iraq to save seven U.S. Marines trapped behind enemy lines.

Working with members of the 920th Rescue Group from Florida, they used two HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and an HC-130 aircraft to bring the Marines to safety March 23.

The successful rescue is one of many similar missions completed by the group since the start of the war on March 20, said Maj. Karen Magnus, the 939th wing's public information officer. The missions have ranged from searching for the pilot of a British Tornado fighter accidentally shot down by a U.S. Patriot missile to evacuating injured soldiers from the front lines.

Few people have heard anything about this or any of the other rescue missions being flown by the Portland area guard reservists, who are part of the unit that suffered a helicopter crash on Mount Hood last June while trying to help rescue hikers who had fallen into a crevasse on the mountain. No one died in the crash.

The Mount Hood crash was captured live by a local television news crew and replayed for days on all the major news networks around the country.

But no reporters were watching 10 days ago.

'None of the embedded media can go along on the rescues. It's just not allowed,' Magnus explained. She said the missions are being kept secret to protect the rescuers and their families.

In fact, the missions are so classified that the military won't release many details, other than to say the rescue wing is based in Kuwait. Magnus said she is not authorized to give wing members' full names, identifying the four members of the 939th who participated in the March 23 rescue only by rank and first name: 2nd Lt. Quintin, 2nd Lt. Mark, Master Sgt. James and Tech. Sgt. Todd.

Despite the lack of public recognition, the reservists are doing the job for which they were trained, Magnus said.

'If you went down behind enemy lines, you'd want to know these guys were coming to get you,' she said.

Pararescue units are the special forces of the military's medical services. They comprise pilots, jumpers, medics and maintenance specialists who often stage rescue missions in hostile terrain. While domestic rescues take place on storm-tossed seas, ice-covered mountains and remote forestland, during foreign wars rescue units brave hostile fire to pull soldiers out of danger, Magnus said.

All such units are staffed by volunteers who undergo rigorous training to qualify, Magnus said. They must complete training courses that include such daunting physical challenges as being required to swim while others are dragging them under water. Only about one-fourth of the applicants who enter the training school complete the required course and become qualified pararescuers.

'It takes longer to train a parajumper than a Navy SEAL or a Green Beret,' said 2nd Lt. Chris, a Portland reservist who expects to be sent overseas soon. 'In addition to the training, they have to know how to fly rescue aircraft and provide medical treatment to people injured in the field.'

Ironically, the Pentagon is decommissioning the local rescue wing, turning the Portland unit into an air refueling unit. The last helicopter left in February, and the squadron's pilots are now learning how to fly KC-135 tankers.

A convergence ceremony to mark the switch is scheduled for Saturday. It will be held at the Oregon Air National Guard's air base in Northeast Portland, where the rescue wing is stationed.

The Oregon rescue duties of the 939th, which was first established in 1959, have been taken over by a squadron based in Salem.

Contact Jim Redden at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..