What 'Boots on the Ground' in Iraq Looks Like

A U.S. Air Force pararescueman, Senior Airman Corey Farr, rappels from an HH-60G Pave Hawk during operational training in Iraq on September 19, 2008. Tech. Sgt. Aaron Allmon/U.S. Air Forces Central Command

This article first appeared on The Daily Signal.

The booms come at regular intervals like incoming artillery. In the background is a heavy metal soundtrack pumped through an iPhone speaker. After doing a clean and press, an Air Force pararescueman throws down the heavily loaded Olympic bar, which rebounds loudly off the plywood floor of the tent gym.

The floor is covered in a thin film of tan dust. Out the open end of the tent, through which the scorching hot Iraqi desert air barely circulates, rescue helicopters can be seen lined up in a gravel landing area. Beyond, the Mesopotamian landscape stretches into the distance like a rolling khaki sea. ISIS-controlled territory is about 40 miles away.

Conversation is sparse, and communication is mostly through head nods. The special operations soldiers sweat in the desert heat as they work out, downing water bottle after water bottle to keep hydrated. Their bodies are tanned from the scorching sun and fit from years of intense training. Most have a patchwork of tattoos, many in remembrance of fallen comrades from the past 14 years of war.

"Most of us who came in after 9/11 have experienced nothing but combat in our careers," one pararescueman says. "It's a way of life."

At this remote, bare base at an undisclosed location in Iraq, a small group of Air Force special operations troops and helicopter aircrew are on alert 24/7, sometimes deep within enemy territory, ready to rescue downed U.S. or coalition pilots in northern Iraq and Syria.

Eight U.S. Air Force pararescuemen, also known as PJs, and three combat rescue officers from the 57th Rescue Squadron based at RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom, supported by three Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and their aircrews, are always ready to launch within about 15 minutes.

These elite troops and airmen are the only rescue team positioned to cover the 275,000-square-mile battlefield of northern Iraq and Syria. Consequently, they are the best hope of survival for a pilot who ejects over this portion of ISIS-controlled territory, which is roughly the size of Colorado.

"As far as personnel recovery within Syria, we are it," says a combat rescue officer, an Air Force major, speaking on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.

"Ideally, we'd have more people here," he adds. "But we've learned to do more with less."

(Many U.S. military personnel deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve—the international combined joint task force fighting ISIS—have chosen not to reveal their identities due to the threat of terrorist reprisals against themselves and their families.)

The "do more with less" mentality reflects a pervasive trend in the U.S. military, as units worn and torn (in equipment and personnel) by 14 years of continuous combat operations have seen little reduction in their operations tempo since the end of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

In fact, the U.S. military is still in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and across an expanding list of other locations worldwide, straining the equipment and manpower reserves of a military that has been depleted in both by budget cuts.

When asked, for example, why more rescue "packages" are not positioned around Iraq and Syria to cut down on response times (which are now potentially up to three hours to pick up a downed airman), an Air Force combat rescue officer replies, "We just don't have the dudes."

Scar Tissue

Air Force PJs and combat rescue officers (CROs) are trained to go deep behind enemy lines, often at great risk, to rescue U.S. personnel. Their motto is "That others may live."

PJs are certified EMT-paramedics. Their medical training includes eight weeks of rotations at a big city hospital (where traumatic wounds from things like gunshots are more common) as well as four weeks riding along with first responders. This training psychologically hardens the recruits to the kinds of injuries they are likely to encounter on the battlefield.

The pararescue training pipeline is considered one of the most difficult among U.S. special operations forces. PJs and CROs also attend specialty schools, including Army Airborne School; Army Combat Divers School; Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School; and Army Free-fall Parachutist School.

The CROs go through the same training as PJs, with the exception of the advanced medical training. The officers' role in combat is to remain "heads up" and aware of the battlefield while the PJs are focused on tending to the wounded.

On missions, the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters are cramped, noisy and confusing. The rescue teams have to slide around on their knees (they all wear kneepads), and there are no seats or safety belts—only metal rings on the floor for attaching harnesses. Combat veterans recount the chaos and carnage inside helicopters in Afghanistan as they recovered personnel wounded by IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and gunshots on a daily basis.

"When it gets crazy, you just fall back on your training," a pararescueman says.

PJs and CROs bring an essential skill set to modern war and are consequently in high demand—especially in Operation Inherent Resolve, in which an airman captured by ISIS faces almost certain death. Yet, despite their importance, the ranks of CROs and PJs are thinning due to an unrelenting deployment schedule and the wear and tear on their bodies over the years.

"It's a young man's game, but most of the SOF [special operations forces] guys are older," a CRO says. "Especially the tier one guys. Most guys are in their late 20s or 30s. Some are even in their 40s."

He adds, "The older guys, the really experienced guys, are the ones we need to keep around."

The pararescue operators are battle-hardened, and their bodies tell the story of careers spent in war. One PJ, an Air Force chief master sergeant, has a scar where he was shot in the face. One CRO, an Air Force major, broke his back in a helicopter crash in 2011 near Kandahar, Afghanistan.

U.S. Special Operations Command launched a program in 2013 called Preservation of the Force and Family, which includes physical therapy support for special operations soldiers. "We are a human-based weapon system," the major says. "Just like an aircraft needs maintenance, we need maintenance too."

He adds, "We're like professional athletes. Bigger, stronger, faster. Mentally resilient. And it pays to be a winner."

Due to their rigorous training pipeline, it can take about two or three years to train a PJ or CRO. And the attrition rates in training are staggering. Sometimes less than 10 percent of recruits who enter training ultimately graduate.

"We just can't mass-produce," the major says. "The training takes 24 months in a perfect world, but two or three years realistically. And then at least four months in a squadron before you're ready to deploy."

Consequently, it isn't easy to refill the thinning ranks, leaving the CROs and PJs currently serving in perpetually high demand. They are still operating in Afghanistan and Iraq and are forward-deployed to other locations, including several sites in Africa. There is also a team always on standby, ready to deploy anywhere in the world.

When they are not deployed, time at home is constantly interrupted by trips for specialized training. After this deployment to Iraq, for example, the 57th Rescue Squadron is scheduled to go to Greece for dive training and to the Alps for mountain warfare training.

For many, the constant combat deployments and training exercises are part of the appeal of this career field, but the strain on family and personal lives eventually takes a toll. Many elect to leave the military once their commitments have expired.

For some, however, the camaraderie unique to elite special operations units is too hard to leave behind. The shared experiences of training and combat are practically impossible to explain to those who have not endured either. "I stuck around because of the guys I get to work with," the CRO major says.

In total, there are currently 588 PJs and 122 CROs in the U.S. military. When asked if there was enough manpower currently in reserve to support another war, a CRO commander said there are no units sitting idle to stand up a new war. To support any additional conflicts, dwell time (the time spent at home between deployments) would simply have to be cut down for those units already dedicated to other conflicts and missions.

"We have limitations," he says.

Last Line of Defense

Combat search and rescue (CSAR) is a challenging mission in Operation Inherent Resolve, primarily due to limited personnel and the size of the battlefield.

The PJs and CROs in Iraq are divided into three four-man teams, which are on 48-hour alerts. Their mandate is to be able to launch within 30 minutes if a pilot goes down, but they say they can be airborne within 15 minutes.

To cut down on response times, the rescue teams occasionally forward-position within enemy territory, either by loitering in the air or setting down on the ground. "We are a reactive force, but there are things we can do to lean forward to be able to be more effective," a CRO says. "We have to get close if you want us to have a chance."

Equipment is also a limiting factor. Due to budget constraints, helicopters lost during OIF and OEF have not been replaced. And the current fleet of Pave Hawks face a litany of maintenance problems after more than a decade of heavy use in austere environments. "The maintainers do an awesome job," a pararescueman says. "If we break down, the coalition doesn't fly strike missions."

There are other CSAR units in the region, but their utility for recovering aircrew in northern Iraq and Syria is limited by geography and circumstance. "With limited resources, the size of the battlespace is a real challenge," says Air Force Colonel Michael Koscheski, commander of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, currently based at an undisclosed location in the Persian Gulf region.

A Marine TRAP (Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel) team, using MV-22 tiltrotor aircraft, covers southern Iraq from an undisclosed base in the Persian Gulf region. The Marine MV-22s have the range to reach northern Iraq and Syria, but the transit time is too long to give downed pilots a realistic chance to evade the enemy.

There is also a fixed-wing CSAR unit deployed to the region (consisting of 14 rescue special operators from the 48th Rescue Squadron based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona), which is capable of parachuting into northern Iraq and Syria from a C-130. The problem is that without any ground support, pararescue teams still have to rely on helicopters to get home.

Also, Special Operations Command Central has a 50-man rescue team equipped with CH-47 Chinook helicopters based in Iraq. This unit, however, is dedicated to defending the network of U.S. special operations units scattered in remote bases and safe houses across the country.

"If a pilot goes down, we're their only chance," a 57th Rescue Squadron pararescueman says.

Fog of War

U.S. helicopters draw enemy fire almost every time they cross the front lines in northern Iraq and Syria. Mostly it's anti-aircraft guns, but one fixed-wing special operations aircraft reported being targeted by a surface-to-air missile. According to a PJ, at least one helicopter has come back with bullet holes. "We take fire every time we go out," a combat rescue officer says.

The absence of any U.S. ground force, dedicated close air support or dedicated ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) aircraft overwatch leaves the rescue teams exposed when they go behind enemy lines. Operators admit there are areas swarming with ISIS fighters in which it is too dangerous for them to operate—a four-man team, no matter how elite, can generate only so much firepower.

"There are places I'm just not equipped to go," a combat rescue officer says.

Another danger in Operation Inherent Resolve is the threat of intercept by Syrian President Bashar Assad's surface-to-air missiles or warplanes.

Pilots and special operators say there is no coordination between U.S. forces and the Syrian air force or the Iranian Quds force units, which are on the ground in Iraq.

U.S. and coalition warplanes steer clear of Assad's surface-to-air missile defense network. During flight planning, U.S. pilots reference aeronautical charts with red rings denoting the ranges of Syria's missile defense network. These areas are de facto no-fly areas for U.S. and coalition assets.

"Coalition aircraft face surface-to-air threats each time they conduct a mission in support of [Operation Inherent Resolve]," a coalition representative says. "The Syrian regime has an integrated air defense system, and there are small arms and man-portable air defense systems throughout the area of responsibility."

There is also the threat of being caught in the crossfire between the Turkish military and Kurd fighters in northern Iraq. Both Turkey and the Kurdish peshmerga are aligned with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS, but Turkey has also been conducting airstrikes against some Kurdish elements.

There is a real concern among some U.S. airmen and special operators that a U.S. helicopter carrying U.S. troops could be mistaken for a Kurdish aircraft. "It's complicated," a pararescueman says. "Some of our friends are at war with each other."

Further clouding the fog of war, U.S. forces now have to also deal with the possibility of encountering Russian warplanes and troops in Syria. "That's when it starts getting really scary," Koscheski says.

Hanging It Out There

The rescue teams are nonchalant about the threats they face. Almost all are veterans of previous combat deployments, and they display no visible evidence of fear or stress. In fact, despite what is at stake, the mood at this bare-bones base is relaxed.

The troops spend their days in workout shorts, T-shirts, baseball caps and flip-flops. Some are clean-shaven; some have a deployment moustache. Their personal lockers in the ready room are filled with piles of body armor, weapons, ammunition and protein powder.

Soldiers who have earned some of the military's highest awards for combat valor blend into the mix with no special treatment or distinction. They bristle with annoyed humility when their medals are mentioned, claiming their heroic acts were "blown way out of proportion."

Combat experience is the norm, not the exception. Out of 11 special operators deployed to this remote base in Iraq, only one has never deployed as a rescue operator.

When it's time for a mission, even if just for training, the laid-back attitudes disappear. They still joke and act calm, but their body language is purposeful. Their movements are a replay of skills practiced thousands of times and deeply ingrained by the stress of training and combat.

The rescuers wear their uniforms and kit in individualized, unique ways, based on personal preferences honed during training and combat, as well as expressions of their personalities. They have written their blood type in permanent marker on their helmets and have it stitched on name patches. They wear their harnesses and have carabiners arranged in the most efficient ways to avoid any fumbling or unnecessary movements. Some wear shoulder patches with their home state's flag; others sport American flag bandanas. They all have their sleeves rolled up.

Time between missions is spent working out, reading or keeping up to date on an eclectic professional skill set, including weekly briefings on emergency medical care and going out to the range to shoot. There is usually a chance to jump on a helicopter for a weekly training mission.

The special operators live like a tribe. They eat together, hang out together and treat outsiders with polite indifference. Years of intense training followed by years of shared combat experiences have forged an unbending faith in one another and a sense of brotherhood. The resulting condition is a demeanor of complete ease and confidence and a laid-back attitude toward the deadly threats faced on every flight outside the wire. At any moment, these special operators know, they could be called on to fly hundreds of miles into enemy territory to rescue a downed pilot.

"We're hanging it out there," a pararescueman says.

Back to Basics

Operation Inherent Resolve marks a return to a more traditional CSAR mission.

In Afghanistan during OEF, day-to-day missions mainly consist of CASEVAC (casualty evacuation). Missions were short, usually just about an hour to recover and provide emergency care to wounded troops, including military working dogs.

The operations tempo was intense, sometimes consisting of multiple missions a day. One combat rescue officer reported that in a 120-day deployment to Afghanistan, he went on more than 200 missions—which was not unusual, he added. Comparatively, many rescue operators call their current mission boring. "We're fighting boredom here; there's only so much training we can do," a combat rescue officer says.

"On the other hand," he adds, "if you're busy, it's not a good thing."

The rescue operators appreciate what is at stake. The fate of captured Jordanian F-16 pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh, 26, whom ISIS burned alive in a cage and then published a video online of his execution, is perpetually on their minds. They know that failing to rescue a downed pilot will not doom him or her to imprisonment or torture but to a gruesome death filmed for the world to witness.

ISIS (which the U.S. military refers to as "Daesh") is a different kind of enemy than the Taliban. The fighters have night-vision goggles, tanks and more sophisticated weapons, including anti-aircraft guns and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. ISIS fighters are also more organized and better trained.

"In Afghanistan it was just dudes with guns," a pararescueman says. "But here it is a more formidable enemy. These guys are organized, they're rich, and they have resources. "

The nature of this war is also different. Iraq is not currently engulfed in a countrywide insurgency. There is a front line in this war, and a clear concept of friendly versus enemy-controlled territory. In OEF and OIF, the enemy was a shadowy presence that lurked everywhere. In Operation Inherent Resolve, maps in operations centers have lines defining ISIS-controlled territory.

Yet the terrain ISIS controls is not uniform or absolute. The enemy has control over cities and urban areas but is largely kept off roads and the empty desert spaces in between due to the inescapable, perpetual threat of U.S. and coalition airpower.

"Daesh can no longer travel using large vehicle convoys but must now travel discreetly with enough civilian traffic to conceal their movement, or risk coalition airstrikes," a coalition representative says.

The battlefield is mostly open desert and barren land. There is ample ungoverned space in which the rescue teams can loiter overhead or set down to forward-position closer to where coalition warplanes are operating. The terrain also makes it difficult for ISIS to mass and deploy its forces without coalition warplanes interdicting. Therefore, ISIS is effectively pinned down in the urban areas it controls.

Yet that is about the limit of what coalition airpower can achieve without complementary ground forces. The potential for civilian casualties limits the more aggressive airstrikes in urban areas, providing (with some exceptions) ISIS fighters a sanctuary from airstrikes.

Operating in enemy-controlled territory exposes the rescue teams to more risks than they might have faced in Afghanistan or during OIF. During those wars, both Iraq and Afghanistan were a patchwork of U.S. airfields, forward operating bases and forward area refueling points.

A rescue team was never more than about a 30-minute flight from a friendly position. Now they sometimes operate more than three hours flying time away from a friendly plot of land.

"In Afghanistan, after 14 years of war, things were really worked out," a combat rescue officer says. "Now it feels like we're trying to reinvent the wheel sometimes. But we don't worry about these things. We just do what we have to do."

Nolan Peterson, a former special operations pilot and a combat veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is The Daily Signal's foreign correspondent.