EDITOR'S NOTE: This excerpt is from the book "Never Quit" by Anchorage-based pararescueman Jimmy Settle and Don Rearden, author of "The Raven's Gift" and a University of Alaska Anchorage professor. Even before its official release, the book ranked as high as No. 60 on Amazon's overall best-seller list.
My brother, real brother, Chris, and my PJ brother Chris Robertson, Bobby Schnell, along with Aaron Parcha, other PJs (Air Force pararescuemen) from my unit, including the chief and the commander, made the trip from Alaska. They held our graduation in a hotel ballroom. High ceilings, chandeliers, the whole works. The scene presented an atmosphere of elegance, in stark contrast to our camp situation for the prior weeks.
There was a stage at one end of the room, tables in the middle, and along one wall, where all the fun was happening, the bar. Every graduate had his own eight-top table for guests and friends, and if you had empty seats, there were plenty of other folks who wanted to sit with the new graduates. The huge room quickly filled with important people and those pretending to be important. The mayor, a general, and half a dozen other politicians. The room had a fair share of brass, some with stars on their uniforms and others with stars in their eyes.
Before the ceremony, I mingled. Chris Robertson and Bobby Schnell began feeding me shots. Chris threw an arm around my neck and half strangled me in a huge hug.
"Congratulations, Jimmy!" he said. "Welcome to the team! I knew you could do it."
Chris really did know. He knew all along. From that first day when he came into the Anchorage shoe store Skinny Raven, where I was working, and filled me with this pararescue dream, with a new life goal, a direction and a purpose.
I had my beret tucked into my waistband, like the rest of my classmates. The cadre had given us our berets a week before the field-training exercise. The irony is that what they hand you isn't anything you'd ever want to be caught dead wearing. You're issued a big, fuzzy, maroon-colored, Pépé-the-Artist–style beret with a comically large dome. One glance and you know something isn't right. No self-respecting man would wear such a monstrosity.
The hat needs to be shaved, shaped, and made to be worn sexy-like. This takes a bit of effort and a Bic razor. First you shave the hat, running the razor across the outside surface to smooth off all the fuzzy fur. Then, to form the beret, you soak the felt thoroughly and put the wet hat on your head. With water dripping down your face, you shape it, pulling the top flap over your ear. The beret should sit with the flash above the left eyebrow, the front flap up and almost covering your right eye and then wrapping around the back of your head. This is perhaps the sexiest piece of military-issued equipment, and it was rumored that if the maroon beret was worn just right, women's underwear could lose all elasticity and fall right off.
We all spent time playing with our berets in the bathroom. The shaping and wearing of these special hats wasn't in any of the pipeline curriculum. We figured the hats out on our own, with a little help from searching online.
After the mingling time came the ceremony. There were a bunch of speeches, then the graduates were seated on stage in front of the ballroom. They began to announce the awards.
I wound up not getting the commandant's award, but that wasn't any surprise. The real shock came when they announced the Arthur N. Black award for esprit de corps. They present this award to the PJ graduate who demonstrates overall superior esprit de corps, motivation and teamwork.
The award is named in honor of Air Force Cross recipient and pararescueman Airman Third Class Arthur Black. On Sept. 20, 1965, an HH-43B went down near the Vietnamese city of Tân An, and North Vietnamese troops captured all four personnel aboard. They held Airman Black as a prisoner of war until February of 1973. Black became the first enlisted Air Force Cross recipient of the Vietnam War and received a battlefield promotion to second lieutenant for his esprit de corps, motivation and teamwork while a POW.
Arthur Black embodies the PJ value of never quit. Of his nearly eight years as a prisoner, he said, "There are many lessons that we all learned during our captivity, but the most important lesson for every countryman to learn and remember is that no matter how difficult, hopeless, or futile the situation might appear, a strong faith in God and country will somehow, in time, resolve that situation." When the words came through the speakers, they took a moment to register with my brain. The emcee leaned down into the microphone and said, "Now, for esprit de corps, the Arthur N. Black award goes to Airman James Settle."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It didn't even make sense. The crowd erupted in cheers.
The guy next to me elbowed my ribs. "Go on, Jimmy! That's you!"
I stood. My legs felt a bit wobbly. I made my way across the stage, grinning wide, and accepted the beautiful black plaque. I did a grin-and-grip for the cameras. Everyone was smiling, clapping and cheering.
I returned to my spot, still a bit shocked. My face burned red from the attention — and perhaps from a few of the shots I'd had before getting onstage. This award meant more to me than just a nice little plaque; this was recognition from my peers. It meant I was the guy the other men would want to be shot down with and survive nearly a decade of captivity alongside. Me. The guy telling jokes, laughing and always playing pranks.
We wore our blues and our fancy black jump boots, buffed so shiny they reflected the crystals from the chandeliers overhead. The command from the emcee blared over the speakers: "Graduates. Have a seat. And blouse your boots."
That order meant we were to take our pant legs up and, using the special blousing strap inside, clip them, exposing those beautiful black jump boots. There I was, in fancy dress uniform, cool shiny black jump boots, and then the emcee gave the order, "Class of 2008, stand at attention!"
We jumped to our feet. All of us stood a little taller.
"Class of 2008, don your berets!" We whipped out our berets and slipped them on.
The emcee finished the ceremony with, "I'm proud to introduce to you the graduating class of 2008. They are now PJs!"
The ballroom explodes with cheers and whistles. We file down off the stage, and in the first round of handshakes everyone is coining us — slipping military coins into our hands. Officers and other operators have these unique silver dollar-size coins, which are the equivalent of a high five or your grandfather's, "Good job, son." Usually, the coins are given as congratulations from a high-ranking officer or high-ranking enlisted person. The person gifting you the coin palms it in his hand while offering a handshake, and you respond with a prompt, "Thank you, sir."
My pockets quickly filled with coins.
And guess who shows up in line? The coolest man ever, my shark-wrestling partner, Yo-Yo. He flew from the 24th out on the East Coast to come see the graduating class. I gave him a big old hug. "Man, I knew you would make it," he said. Then he added, in his own way, "You're one motivated dude."
The spirits continued to soar, as well as flow, for the duration of the night. PJs have a reputation for not being afraid, and perhaps the philosophy transfers to not being afraid to have fun, either. There is a special energy and a zest for life the profession seems to attract, and most of the guys I know with a maroon beret are the best kind of guys you'll ever meet. I learned that it takes a special breed to come out the other side of the pipeline in one piece, and when someone new joins the rank, that entry into the fold is cause enough for some serious celebration.
And celebrate we did. I'd survived the pipeline. I had only five days to pack my belongings and drive the 3,600 miles back to Alaska, where I would begin my career as a PJ. I couldn't get home fast enough.
• • • •
Home in Alaska
Finally home, I became Alaska PJ No. 72, a full-fledged member of the Anchorage-based Alaska Air National Guard's 176th Wing.
The military has played an interesting role throughout Alaska history, in terms of war, rescue and building vital state infrastructure.
The Army Air Force's 10th Emergency Boat Rescue Squadron operated in Alaska from the 1940s, using airplanes, boats and dog teams. They distinguished themselves in the battles of World War II in Alaska waters. In the 1990s, when the Air National Guard squadron took over rescue operations in Alaska, the new unit was named the 210th to honor the 10th rescue outfit, becoming the "second" Tenth Rescue Squadron. I came into the unit after the 210th was already subdivided to reflect the specialization of key components of the unit. The simplest way to delineate these is that the 210th was for the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, the 211th was for the fixed-wing HC-130s and the 212th was reserved for PJ (Air Force pararescue), CRO (Air Force combat rescue officer) and SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) specialists. Combined, the three units create the backbone for our rescue missions in Alaska and beyond.
My number, 72, meant that 71 PJs had the distinction of serving Alaska before me. I couldn't believe my luck, to be back home with such an incredible job — literally a dream come true. I hit the ground not just running but flying, more than 100 miles per hour with nearly every training and mission.
Back at the section in Spenard, I was shown to my cage. The cages sat on a concrete floor in a room with a 20-foot ceiling supported by steel I-beam rafters. Bright parking lot lights created long shadows and only added to the Batcave feeling. Most of the people who had been around for any period of time installed supplemental lighting in their cages. The cage essentially turns into your home away from home. The 8-foot-square cage is basically the PJ locker room, office and, for some, sleeping area, all at once.
The main component in your cage is your alert rack, a cart where you store all your alert gear. You might have up to 10 gear bags, depending on what mission you're trying to be ready for. When sitting on alert, you keep everything in gear bags preloaded on a cart, so that when a search or rescue call comes in, you can roll out the door at a moment's notice.
I inherited my cage from the outgoing chief, Skip Kula, a man whose rescue stories were legendary. Skip had been a PJ for nearly three decades, and he left behind great cage lights and some cool items, like old pararescue manuals and gear. I like to think the cage still had some of the superpowers that had kept Skip safe all those years.
The first order of business was to acquire the gear I needed to operate, and to get my cage in order. I installed curtain rods so I could hang everything — jackets, dry suit, mountaineering gear, and all the specialized clothing you need for the variety of terrain and weather in Alaska. I mounted speakers so I could listen to music. I turned that wire cage into my little home, and my mini office when at work. The old section had few assigned offices, so our personal files and books remained in our cages. When there was anything resembling downtime, that is where I would hang out, drink coffee and read — mostly studying PJ manuals. But there never really was downtime. If you thought you were bored, you were wrong. There was always something to read or study — that is, if you weren't prepping for training or taking care of your gear.
Specialized gear requires special care and maintenance.
The cage area was located inside what we called "the bay," the garage where the two alert trucks were parked. This was an enormous warehouse, with doorways leading off the perimeter walls of the bay area into the armory, supply and parachute rooms. All our mission-related service areas were attached to the room, like a big organ.
My unit basically took the pipeline training that I had just completed and redid it all. This was Alaska orientation. Upgrade training, they called it. Due to the terrain, the weather and some unusual living and working conditions, Alaska can be a dangerous place.
Busiest unit in the DOD
There isn't a single rescue unit in the entire Department of Defense busier than the 212th Rescue Squadron. The 11th Rescue Coordination Center, the brains behind the brawn of the unit, took over coordinating the rescues and searches for a host of Alaska agencies, and since 1994, it has staged more than 5,000 missions and saved the lives of well over 2,000 people.
When people require rescue in Alaska, which is often, the situation facing the person or people needing help is often dangerous. To be a PJ in Alaska, you want to make sure you are proficient at operating in all the wild scenarios Alaska might throw at you, from wicked weather to bear attacks. You don't want to hurt yourself or anyone else when you drop in for a rescue. There was a long menu of required Alaska upgrade training.
A large portion of the training deals with rescues in inclement weather or hazardous conditions, such as snow, ice or glacial silt. Another significant piece of the training revolved around using our specialized parachute. Then there is all the other team stuff, like mud rescue, earthquake rescue, glacier rescue and Arctic sea ice rescue.
The mud rescue gear is really unique, designed for the mudflats all around Anchorage and Cook Inlet. This mud is treacherous. Tidal deposits of silt, sand and muck from the outwash of the surrounding glaciers pose a serious threat to people who attempt to walk on them. It appears at first glance to be a nice long stretch of beach, but that muck acts like quicksand and will suck you right in. You're stuck, or you're playing around, having fun and laughing at your stranded boot, and then you realize the tide is coming in, and coming in fast. You will drown if you don't get out.
Several people have died this way, and their deaths or rescues have become local lore. Rumors abound of someone being torn in half by a last-minute attempt to use a chopper to pull the victim from the ruthless grip of the mud.
In July 1988, Adeana Dickison and her husband were mining at Ingram Creek when their Jeep became mired in the mud. As they attempted to free the vehicle, Adeana's leg became immovable. Her husband tried to free her, but couldn't. He went for help. By the time emergency crews arrived, the tide had risen to her chest and she had little time left. She pleaded with them to do something, but they simply could not get her leg free as the water rose. With her final breaths, she was begging them to save her. The trooper on the scene gave her a tube to breathe through as the water rushed over her head, but hypothermia had already taken hold and she couldn't keep her hands on the hose for long.
Dickison's horrific death prompted rescue agencies, including our unit, to be better prepared for emergencies on the mudflats. Part of my upgrade training dealt with learning the system we had set up. This included building a working platform with plywood and using these funky, snowshoe-like shoes for walking on the mud. We had a specialized backpack, similar to a five-gallon metal cauldron that we could use to pressurize the water around stranded limbs, using pressurized water to break the suction.
At the same time, I began working with the helicopters and C-130 crews and learning those aircraft. Every day, I was learning new stuff; then I would go home and hit the books. When I came back as a new PJ, I was more intimidated and scared than I had been as a cone. As a cone, it's OK to screw up. You're new and you don't know anything. But as a beret-toting PJ, if you are going to be the dude, you've got to know what the hell you are doing. The margin of error is that there is no margin for error.
I put in long days. I was usually the first one there and I would stay late working. But it paid off, and I got the upgrade training done. The kinds of things I got to do for "work" and training in the Alaska wilderness are things that people pay ridiculous amounts of money to try just once. I loved all the winter training. This really brought home to me how fortunate I was to be able to train outdoors and to work in preparation to save lives in my own state.
They flew us into the mountains for avalanche rescue training. We'd go into the wilderness on backcountry skis, ATVs or snowmachines. My favorite sort of delivery to the wilderness was, of course, by helicopter. There was nothing like taking off from Anchorage and racing toward impossibly difficult and remote terrain. That sea of mountains I spoke of seeing from the top of Arctic Valley? The pilots could deliver us far into the remote reaches of the Chugach range and deploy us to practice our winter skills. In the name of practice and training, I'd get dropped off on glaciers or mountaintops to ski.
This sounds like fun, and it was, but the Alaska wilderness was our educational proving ground. The very places where we trained could become the site of a downed aircraft or a lost hiker. Alaska is amazing, but she also gobbles up her fair share of victims. If we were going to rescue people across the state, we had to know how to handle ourselves in all sorts of sticky situations.
Crevasse rescue work was some of my favorite training. That first May as a PJ, I was dropped at the Denali base camp for some glacial crevasse rescue and mountaineering training. There is nothing like dropping down into the blue-black depths of a glacier. I couldn't believe my luck, getting to spend time at the base camp.
From "Never Quit" by Jimmy Settle with Don Rearden. Copyright 2017 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press.