Over the course of several months in 2016 and 2017, Maj. Brock Roden was trailed by a chocolate Labrador puppy named Toml. At first glance, Toml looks like any other good-natured lab. However, "Toml" is an acronym drawn from the motto of the fabled 212th Rescue Squadron of the Alaska National Guard, an elite special operations unit that's among the most highly specialized and rigorously trained in the world: "These Things We Do, That Others May Live."
Meeting Toml, tail wagging and happy to see you, is a lot like meeting Roden and other members of the 212th squadron. By and large, they are full of life, excited about military toys and intensely focused on what matters most to them — including fierce loyalty to their teammates who help save lives. "That Others May Live," or TOML, is the bedrock of their missions.
Roden's training qualifies him for more than just watching Toml the squadron dog, of course. He's a combat rescue officer with the 212th squadron, commonly known as the "PJs" (pararescue jumpers). There is a brief description of Roden in the new book "Never Quit: From Alaskan Wilderness Rescues to Afghanistan Firefights as an Elite Special Ops PJ," by Anchorage-raised PJ Jimmy Settle and writer Don Rearden:
"Brock exuded what I can only describe as a sort of Zen existence. He was calm. Never stressed."
Originally, Roden wanted to become a pilot. But when he learned about the 212th squadron in college, his interest was piqued by the challenge of something physically and mentally demanding that at the same time felt meaningful. PJs are comparable to the Army's Special Forces or Navy SEALs, but Roden's unit isn't as widely known in popular culture. Roden, who has been part of the PJs team for 10 years and in training for two years before that, is quick to say that's OK with him.
There are about 50 Alaska Air National Guard pararescuemen like Roden based in Alaska at any given time. "PJs are highly trained and motivated specialists who endure an incredibly grueling training process to earn the right to wear the distinctive flash on their hard-earned beret," according to the Air National Guard. "When in a theater of combat, members of the 212th are experts in what are called personnel recovery operations — rescuing isolated men and women from enemy territory as well as various recovery missions.
"Back at home, the 212th Rescue Squadron is part of a network of search-and-rescue organizations that save … lives in and around Alaska every year."
Most Alaskans are familiar with the PJs, whether through personal, professional or backcountry networks, or simply by following local news. The 212th squadron has rescued hikers, climbers, pilots, skiers and more from some of the most inaccessible places in the state, often in challenging weather and terrain.
As part of a cycle of deployment, Roden, for example, has served on more than 100 rescue missions in Afghanistan. This is in service of the straightforward and sobering purpose of a PJ, as described by the Air National Guard: "to preserve the lives and well-being of U.S. service members in danger of isolation or capture overseas." However when Roden and other PJs are home, Alaska provides some of the best training the squadron could want: cold weather, high peaks and few roads.
"There are guides and pilots around Alaska with our number written down in their "go to s— plan," explained Maj. Christian Braunlich. "If there is no one else that can get out there, we're a resource." The PJs serve as the final call in a chain of search-and-rescue options available in Alaska.
Roden has served on about 10 such in-state missions.
"I feel like I'm dancing with death a lot more than when I'm in combat," he said. When stationed in Afghanistan, Roden accepts death as an option. Back home, it's a different mindset.
One of Roden's most harrowing Alaska experiences involved coming down the West Buttress of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, during a training trip with eight other PJs, including Braunlich. All were new to the squadron.
Roden said they decided to stop at 19,500 feet, just shy of the 20,310-foot summit, a decision they were proud to make. Especially considering what happened next.
Halfway down, the group encountered a nasty windstorm. The soft snow on one particular slope had blown away, leaving a surface that was essentially slick ice, followed by a drop of at least 1,000 feet. Roden was roped up to two of his teammates, both ahead of him. He had a sled loaded with 70 pounds of gear that he'd normally drag behind but, due to the descent, it was in front. A teammate ahead of him also pulled at him. Traction was poor.
"If I take one wrong step, I'm going to take all three of us down." Roden recalled struggling every step of the way: "I can't misstep, but how can I not?
"My deepest fear is I will let teammates down from being unprepared."
Similarly, the path Roden and others took to become a PJ is ruthless and fraught with danger. A training "pipeline" is designed to prepare squadron members who must respond to myriad volatile circumstances, including combat rescues. The attrition rate of would-be PJs is 80 percent during training. Roden and Braunlich consider the psychological challenges as critical as the physical ones.
An in-pool exercise called buddy breathing is among the most challenging — and important. Braunlich said the only focus during buddy breathing is getting the other person air, even when you don't have any. "It's going to be chaotic, you can't control most of it. The only thing you can control is your own actions. It's actually a lot like an airplane crash."
Roden added: "It creates a panic feeling, even if you're used to the water. Your initial reaction without this exposure to stress is "get out of this situation." But you have to control panic (first)."
PJs' training helps ensure that their tolerance and management of high-stress situations is exceptional. All are taught to jump out of airplanes; all are skilled medics, all go through an outdoor survival school. During an aerial search for missing pilot David McRae in November 2016, Roden wrote down his decision-making process after locating the downed plane.
"There was no visible signs of life from the air, meaning it didn't (look) like he had been tramping in the area, surviving or making an attempt to help himself be located. It was clean and undisturbed snow on top of and all around the crash …
"It didn't look like he was alive, but we wanted to make absolutely sure. The crash was in avalanche terrain, and with the recent snowstorm, the avalanche danger was considerable. Not to mention the altitude was about 6,800 feet, limiting our helo's ability to hover …"
Ultimately, Roden and his partner landed and recovered McRae's body and some personal items to return to his family — an unusual step during a mission but personally significant for Roden.
"I do this because I think about my dad, a private pilot" Roden wrote. "If he had crashed, I would want someone to bring home some of those personal items like that pocket knife (that) I'd carry around for the rest of my life."
Both Roden and Braunlich emphasized how important it is for them to be part of the Alaska community, to give back as individuals and as a squadron. Both are avid outdoorsmen, and Roden has a deal with a local business where he exchanges hand-picked berries for locally made ice cream.
And of course, in addition to serving as part of the squadron they'll take care of Toml. Toml, who is registered as a mental health animal, recently left Anchorage to go with members of the squadron deploying to Afghanistan, including Braunlich. Roden will stay in Anchorage, where he is on call for search and rescue missions across the state of Alaska until his next deployment overseas.
Alli Harvey is a Palmer-based freelance writer.