Story by Staff Sgt. Brian Jarvis
129th Rescue Wing
For the 131st Rescue Squadron, the mission goes far beyond the boundaries of northern California.
Comprised of Guardian Angel pararescuemen, the 131st recently participated in Clear Sky 2018, a multinational training exercise based in Ukraine. Aimed to promote peace, security and collaboration between regional allies as well as NATO partners, the exercise brought together nearly 1,000 military personnel from nine countries.
“The main goal of the exercise is to gain knowledge,” said Col. Oleg Nechepuruk, 146th Air Brigade Commander. “We are working together and toward a common goal of supporting peace in the world.”
As part of Clear Sky 2018, pararescuemen from the 131st worked alongside their Ukrainian and Danish counterparts over the course of the two-week exercise. The training scenarios, all of which were geared toward personnel recovery, included jump operations, overwater helicopter operations and medical training.
“The biggest benefit is that we get to share tips and tricks of how to better accomplish a mission. Everyone comes out with a greater sense of confidence,” said 131st pararescueman Staff Sgt. George MacKenzie. “The Ukrainians have been gracious to have us here, they’re hardworking and motivated to train. Overall I believe they’re very similar to us. All of our training is for the real world, and if a plane or helicopter goes down, it’s our job to recover the personnel by any means necessary.”
According to fellow pararescuemen Master Sgt. Sean Kirsch, who first trained alongside Ukrainians in 2004 during exercise Rough and Ready, the Ukrainian military has grown leaps and bounds over the last 14 years.
“It’s great to see the level they’ve grown. They’re more structured and definitely have more expertise, they have a better focus of their roles and responsibilities and they’re better equipped than before,” Kirsch said. “In the end the hope is that we’re able to grow from this exercise. It starts out in a crawl-walk-run mentality, and next time we’ll be able to expand on what we’ve learned and accomplished.”
In addition to pararescuemen, several combat rescue officers and SERE specialists (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) took part in the training.
Master Sgt. Eric Icenhower, Air Reserve Component SERE specialist training superintendent, formerly with the 131st, stressed the importance of interoperability and continuing to introduce Ukraine to NATO standards.
“We can help get them there, but we need to do it in a small capacity, a mobile training team that evaluates their methodology and shows them how to become self sufficient,” Icenhower said. “The Ukrainians were able to show us what they’re capable of and were very receptive to our instruction. This exercise moved the ball five yards down the football field.”
Having also trained previously in Ukraine, Icenhower noted the American and Ukrainian militaries have a decades-long relationship thanks to the California Partnership Program. Though SERE is typically associated with survival training, Icenhower described its role at Clear Sky 2018 as a “control node” that provides continuity and awareness between leadership, mission objectives and the team executing the recovery.
“Before it was mostly just briefings, but now, no kidding, we’re doing practical exercises. We’re executing on what I thought was ten years away, and it’s only been two years,” Icenhower said.
The 129th Rescue Wing is credited with saving the lives of over 1,100 people since 1977. From arid deserts and snow-covered mountain tops to urban and rural settings, 129th Rescue Wing air guardsmen can reach any destination by land, air or sea. Equipped with HC-130J Combat King II aircraft, HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters and Guardian Angel teams (Pararescuemen, Combat Rescue Officers and SERE Specialists), the 129th Rescue Wing conducts combat search and rescue missions, as well as the rescue of isolated persons on board ships, lost or injured hikers, and medical evacuations across the West Coast.