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NY Guardsmen Stay on Alert to Save Lives

By Staff Sgt. Jason Lake/455th Air Expeditionary Wing

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, April 28, 2009 - While all Airmen assigned to rescue squadrons throughout the Air Force know and follow the motto "So that others may live," there is one rescue squadron deployed to Afghanistan that takes this personal.

"There is something that sets our unit apart from all the others," said Senior Master Sgt. James McAleavey, an HH-60 aerial gunner supporting Operation Enduring Freedom along with more than 75 other Airmen from the 101st Rescue Squadron from West Hampton Beach, N.Y. 

"Our unit is from the city where it all started," he said. "New York City is home field for all of us."

The 101st ERQS provides combat search and rescue capability for the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing. Roughly half of the four aircrews deployed from the Air National Guard unit are either police officers or firefighters from New York City, including Senior Master Sgt. Glen Berg, an aerial gunner and firefighter who wears "FDNY" and "9-11, Never Forget" patches on his body armor as a reminder why his unit is in Afghanistan.

"Maj. (Curtis) Green's fire house and the fire house I work for lost firefighters that day," said Capt. Shaun Cullen, an HH-60 Pave Hawk pilot who also works full time as a firefighter back home. "I worked on Wall Street with an investing firm at the time and saw the explosions from the back side of my office."

The captain said one of the benefits of being in law enforcement or firefighting back home is that it's very similar in nature to providing combat search and rescue capabilities in Afghanistan.

"You never know what kind of situation you're going to get into," he said. "You constantly have to be in an alert posture; ready to go."

In the past seven years, the unit has deployed five times including one deployment in 2003 to Baghdad, Iraq, and two deployments in 2005 and 2007 to Kandahar, Afghanistan. The unit's current five-month deployment here is slated to end next month.

"Combat search and rescue is a tough job because you don't want to put your skills to use. If you do, that means someone is having a bad day," said Lt. Col. Eugene Sengstacken, the 101st Expeditionary Rescue Squadron commander here. "When we get the call, everybody has their game on because we all know what's at stake. It's those times that you see how professional your people are and what they are willing to risk to get the job done."

For Sergeant McAleavey, it's easy to understand what's at stake because his son recently graduated from the Army's explosive ordnance disposal training to become an EOD technician. His son's unit is slated to deploy to Afghanistan next year.

"It's all about saving lives," said the 26-year retired detective from Lindenhurst, N.Y. "If we save just one life in our entire career, it was all worth it. With my son now serving in EOD, I would hope that a unit like ours would do the same for my son if he was wounded."

But sometimes Sergeant McAleavey admitted their mission to save servicemembers is bittersweet. 

"We've brought back people who didn't make it," he said. "But we brought them home for their families so they can have closure."

To stay sharp when the alert calls are sparse, the team finds ways to fine tune their skill sets by flying training missions to deliver humanitarian supplies or firing off the aerial guns on the firing range.

Tech. Sgt. Jedediah Smith, a seven-year veteran pararescuemen, visits the hospital here to brush up on his field medicine techniques. He also trains some of the aircrew on basic techniques in case he is injured during a mission.

"It's important that everyone has some basic medical skills, because nobody really knows who the patient is going to be," said Sergeant Smith, who totes a little brown teddy bear from his 4-year-old daughter's school with him "pretty much everywhere" he goes.

The New York Guardsmen look forward to catching up with friends and family as crewmembers from the 56th Rescue Squadron at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, arrive next month.

But until they leave on the coveted rotator flight back home, the 101st RQS remains vigilant here "so that others may live."