After decades of war, the United States is winding down its involvement in Iraq and now Afghanistan, but whatever was achieved there came at a tremendous cost, both in blood and treasure.
No one knows more about the blood than the United States Air Force Pararescue jumpers, known as PJs. It’s their task to get to, pick up and treat wounded warfighters and civilians.
The National Geographic Channel series “Inside Combat Rescue,” which aired in 2013, embedded with an Afghanistan deployment of PJs, outfitting them with cutting-edge micro-cameras that recorded them on their missions. The result was a startlingly frank and revealing look at airmen that combine courage and daring with caring and compassion.
On Sunday, June 15, National Geographic embeds with a new group of PJs from the 83rd Rescue Squadron in the waning days of Operation Enduring Freedom — along with introducing viewers to another group of airmen, the Reapers — with the premiere of the two-hour special “Inside Combat Rescue: The Last Stand.”
Stationed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, the “Reapers” is an elite Air Force unit tasked with protecting the base, and that includes tracking and capturing or killing Taliban fighters that threaten its security.
Meanwhile, the PJs spring into action to help people critically wounded following a massive attack on a compound in the city of Kabul.
Major Chris Hagemeyer was the commander of the 755th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron at Bagram Airfield, responsible for about 150 airmen, including the “Reaper” teams, defending the 36,000 personnel on base. His team also partnered with Afghan National Security Forces to conduct patrols, clear routes and engage villagers.
Now back home, Hagemeyer is the commander of the 822nd Base Defense Squadron at Moody Air Force in Valdosta, Ga.
He’s eager for Americans to see that airmen aren’t just pilots, that they also often have both feet on the ground, conducting operations.
“To be honest,” Hagemeyer tells Zap2it, “every time people find out that I’m in the Air Force, almost the first question they ever ask is, ‘What do you fly?’ It’s interesting, because even the flying community within the Air Force in general is small compared to the size of the Air Force.
“So, the public’s opinion when they hear ‘Air Force,’ they naturally think about the air power, and rightly so, because that is the priority of the Air Force. That’s why this is a great opportunity. I know it’s going to be great for these folks to be able to get their story out, which is a small part of the Air Force, but obviously an extremely important one to the security of the airfield, nonetheless.”
Of course, just because Hagemeyer and his team have left Afghanistan doesn’t mean the conflict is done, and it certainly doesn’t mean the war is won. Al Qaeda forces have re-entered cities in Iraq won by American troops in hard fighting. There’s no reason to think Taliban atrocities against Afghans, especially women and children, won’t resurge as soon as American forces back away.
It’s a hard pill to swallow for a lot of U.S. troops.
“It would be wrong of me,” says Hagemeyer, “to say that we don’t obviously hope for the best, because of the amount of time and energy, everything that not only we’ve poured into this mission, but thousands before and continue to pour into this mission, that we do hope for the best.
“We had an opportunity in this mission to be completely engaged in the villages outside of this base, with the Afghan police outside, the Afghan army. You can’t help but become friends with some of these people and really hope they’re successful when it’s eventually all turned over, because it will be.
“I know that a lot of these airmen really hope that they are able to continue the things that we’ve done and be successful in securing their country, because there are a lot of great people over there.”
As for those who have concluded the men, women and children of Afghanistan are beyond the U.S.’ ability to help, Hagemeyer says, “If you take a disconnected approach, it’s easy to say that. But when you’ve been on the ground, and you’ve spent time with these people, with these families, and seen the struggle that they go through, and the efforts that they’ve gone through to make their lives better, you cannot help but really hope for the best.”
But these days, Hagemeyer and his airmen work on ramping down from the intensity of the combat zone to the rather different rhythm of life down home in Georgia.
“It’s still a challenge,” he says, “that a lot of people have when they come back. Things that are priorities here, a lot of times are not priorities over there, so you have to adjust.
“Paperwork becomes a priority here.”