- The Washington Times - Friday, October 30, 2009

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan | A cool wind rushed through the open back doors of the Black Hawk, rattling the ventilators, IV tubes and defibrillators as the rescue helicopter banked sharply and rose into the sky.

It was headed for a site on Kandahar’s Highway 1, dubbed “Death Highway” by coalition troops, where a powerful improvised explosive device had just struck a U.S. convoy.

The mission - to pick up the dead and wounded - was all too familiar for the members of the Air Force’s 55th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, better known as the Guardian Angels, based at Kandahar Air Field.

“This is the toughest thing we do, but we bring everyone home and we leave no one behind,” said Capt. Steve Colletti, director of operations, before donning his gear and boarding the HH 60G Pave Hawk, a modified Black Hawk helicopter.

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“Every time we pick up injured troops, it hits us deep in the heart,” he said. “We’ve become the 911 response for southern Afghanistan - whether that’s our troops or Afghan citizens.”

The past week has brought plenty of heartache for the medical combat specialists, considered the “special forces” of the Air Force. A day earlier, they had spent an afternoon airlifting 17 severely wounded members of the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team to the trauma center at Kandahar Air Field. One American and one Afghan soldier were killed in that IED attack.

A rash of combat deaths elsewhere in the Afghan theater has made this the deadliest month of the eight-year-old war for American forces. Seven U.S. troops and three agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency died Monday in helicopter crashes. On Tuesday, eight soldiers with the 5th Brigade, 2nd Division Stryker Brigade Combat Team died from IEDs and hostile fire.

The deaths are a “reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that our young men and women in uniform are engaging in every single day, not only our troops but their families as well,” said President Obama, who flew Thursday to Dover Air Force Base to salute 18 of the week’s victims and meet with their families.

The toll is complicating an already difficult decision for Mr. Obama, who is weighing whether to redefine the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and how many troops it will require.

For the nearly 68,000 already here, the debate is not academic.

It “was a pretty bad day,” said Maj. Ben Conde, from Denver, who flew the missions to rescue the 17 injured troops and bring home the two killed in action. “It was a day we never wish would happen again.”

“These aren’t numbers, these are our family, our brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and children,” said Pararescueman Vincent Eckert, from Tucson, Ariz. “We’ve kind of become a jack of all trades. These are the things we do so that others may live. We’re not bomb droppers - our mission is to save lives.”

The members of the squadron are called pararescuemen or parajumpers - PJs. All are trained trauma medical technicians who can perform battlefield surgery - including amputations - under enemy fire.

If necessary, the PJs parachute to their victims. Trained to work in almost any weather, they are physically fit enough to perform rescues deep underwater or high in the mountains.

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