Afghanistan Dispatch

Flying With Armed PJs

NPR reporter Tom Bowman and photographer David Gilkey recently returned from Afghanistan. Searching through Gilkey's unpublished photos, we came across some images that seemed to merit a dispatch.

By Tom Bowman

The Combat Search and Rescue helicopters operated by the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan transport medics who are trained to treat the injured during that "golden hour," the moments that can mean the difference between life and death.

The medics listen to the radio from their wooden hut at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan, waiting for the call. They are briefed about combat operations that day, including where they may be sent. A large map pinpoints the locations.

  • United States Air Force Senior Airman pararescue jumper Andrew Rios hangs out the door of an HH-60 Pave Hawk while in flight to pick up an Afghan policeman injured in an IED attack in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan.
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    United States Air Force Senior Airman pararescue jumper Andrew Rios hangs out the door of an HH-60 Pave Hawk while in flight to pick up an Afghan policeman injured in an IED attack in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan.
  • Combat Search and Rescue, or CSAR, crew members carry an injured Afghan policeman to the waiting helicopter.
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    Combat Search and Rescue, or CSAR, crew members carry an injured Afghan policeman to the waiting helicopter.
  • CSAR pararescue jumpers Andrew Rios (left) and Mark Bedell stabilize the policeman while in flight to the hospital.
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    CSAR pararescue jumpers Andrew Rios (left) and Mark Bedell stabilize the policeman while in flight to the hospital.
  • CSAR members are totally at ease working in the air.
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    CSAR members are totally at ease working in the air.
  • Bedell sits, strapped into a harness, in the door of the helicopter.
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    Bedell sits, strapped into a harness, in the door of the helicopter.
  • Afghan ambulance attendants at Kandahar Airfield unload a stretcher in preparation for the IED victim.
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    Afghan ambulance attendants at Kandahar Airfield unload a stretcher in preparation for the IED victim.
  • Pararescue jumpers Rios (left) and Bedell transport the policeman to the Afghan ambulance.
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    Pararescue jumpers Rios (left) and Bedell transport the policeman to the Afghan ambulance.
  • A CSAR mechanic inspects the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter.
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    A CSAR mechanic inspects the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter.
  • Rios boards the helicopter, an M4 assault rifle in hand.
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    Rios boards the helicopter, an M4 assault rifle in hand.
  • CSAR Capt. Hung Nguyen starts up the engines on his Pave Hawk helicopter for yet another mission.
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    CSAR Capt. Hung Nguyen starts up the engines on his Pave Hawk helicopter for yet another mission.

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They share lunch, heaving pieces of chicken onto paper plates, drinking sodas, chatting and waiting.

Suddenly, a voice squawks over the intercom, and they dash from the hut to their specially designed Black Hawk helicopters on the nearby tarmac.

Within minutes they are in the air. Two pararescuemen, Staff Sgt. Mark Bedell and Senior Airman Andrew Rios, sit with their feet dangling hundreds of feet above Kandahar province. Known as PJs (pararescue jumpers), they are trained to bring back downed pilots or provide emergency treatment to soldiers and civilians caught up in fighting.

The helicopter is all business. All the seats have been taken out, and supplies are neatly stocked to one side. There is only a wide and empty metal space. Senior Master Sgt. Walter Bacio mans an M4 machine gun, while the flight engineer, Senior Airman Andrew Gibson, gazes out the window.

In a blur, we pass over mud huts, grazing sheep, and then bank a bit too close to a mountainside. A sort of super seat belt is holding me to the floor, but I'm convinced I'll roll out of the helicopter like a marble into the dust below. NPR photographer David Gilkey is somehow snapping pictures without holding on for dear life.

The pilot, Maj. Tom Roberts, and his co-pilot, Capt. Hung Nguyen, then turn in a sharp angle and drop into a compound, less than 10 miles from Kandahar Airfield. The whoosh of the helicopter blades is almost deafening. Two Americans are carrying an Afghan man, who has stepped on a mine, on a stretcher. He looks bewildered.

The man has lacerations and an injured groin. Within seconds they are hustling him onboard, the stretcher fastened to the metal floor. His head lolls back and forth as the PJs work on him. An IV needle is put into his arm. As he is stabilized, a peaceful look covers his face.

The helicopter banks again and drops into a dirt field next to an Afghan military hospital. The man is carried out and placed inside an ancient ambulance. The CSAR crew rises once more into the sky, heading back to the wooden hut, waiting for still another call.

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