'Search and Rescue' Is Not Just a Frill

April 5, 2003 — -- There are few missions as exciting and noble as combat search and rescue missions — daring dashes behind enemy lines, not to kill, but to save lives.

The Iraq war is just over two weeks old, but with its massive deployment, it has given search and rescue teams plenty to do.

As of Tuesday, when the Defense Department announced the rescue of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, combat search and rescue operations had successfully recovered 67 coalition personnel from hostile situations.

Lynch, 19, had been held as a prisoner of war since she and other members of her unit were ambushed March 23 near Nasiriyah.

Details about search and rescue operations are tightly guarded, but the past conflicts have provided some hints to what goes on when an American soldier, airman or sailor goes missing.

Intense, Involved Operation

The lead service for Combat Search and Rescue — CSAR — operations is the Air Force, according to Pentagon regulations, but it is responsible for all branches.

In Iraq, the search and rescue network is attached to the Combined Air Operations Center, which controls the U.S.-led air campaign.

When a distress call comes in, military planners have to answer a number of crucial questions: Where is the closest rescue craft? How far away are enemy troops? What kind of firepower do they have? How much air support do we need? How much time do we have?

A recent test by CSAR professionals conducted at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada suggested that after two hours on the ground, the odds begin to turn against a successful rescue, retired Col. Darrel Whitcomb wrote in Air and Space Power, a Pentagon professional journal.

"When an aircrew is down, time works against us. Our enemies realize that we will make the effort and will try to rescue our personnel. We must assume that they know of our efforts and probably have some knowledge of our specific techniques," Whitcomb wrote.

The enemy may also be using a distress signal to lure U.S. rescue forces into a trap, military planners note. So add one more obligation to the list for search and rescue commanders — verify identity.

Then, they have to decide who goes. The search and rescue personnel have typically been special operations forces, said retired Lt. Col. John Carlson, who participated in CSAR missions in Vietnam.

If a survivor requires immediate medical attention and cannot wait for the arrival of the recovery helicopter, specially trained personnel may be parachuted in to help stabilize them and prepare them for recovery.

Members of these units are called PJs — short for pararescuemen, or parajumpers.

They also have to determine the strike package, Carlson said. When he was in Vietnam, he said he had two basic options — to put a team of special operations operatives on the ground, secure the area, and then move the prisoner away, or to move in covertly with one helicopter with a fighter jet escort, and not put anyone on the ground.

You run the risk of a "snowball effect" if you put soldiers in on the ground, Carlson said.

"You send 15 guys in a chopper to get one, and they get shot down and you got more — it didn't make sense," he said, adding that sometimes you have no choice.

Some Things Don't Change

With the advances in U.S. technology since the Vietnam War — night vision, global positioning and computer encryption among them — things may have gotten easier.

"Now they've gotten really good," Carlson said. "It used to be when we used to say, 'Cover up, and we'll come at first light.' Now we say, 'Cover up, we'll come at first dark.'"

But other things have not changed. CSAR personnel still operate by the motto "So That Others May Live."

"You never rescue a dead guy," he adds. "And you can't rescue somebody that doesn't want to be rescued."

Whitcomb wrote: "CSARing is war fighting — pure and simple. We cannot think of it separately. CSARing is just another form of battle."

Some may ask, "Why so much for one man?" Whitcomb lists five reasons. Rescues are part of human nature, he says. They also help morale, and strengthen the bonds of brotherhood. They deny the enemy the chance to extract intelligence from a POW. And most importantly, "because we can."

Many of those sentiments were reflected in the statements of Central Command spokesman Jim Wilkinson in announcing the recovery of Pfc. Jessica Lynch on Tuesday.

"America doesn't leave its heroes behind," he said. "Never has. Never will."