It was around 3:30 a.m. when the team began its daring mountainside rescue of two U.S. Army pilots whose helicopter crashed in an enemy-controlled Afghan valley.
The pararescuemen threw on their body armor, grabbed their weapons and ran out to their helicopters. Time was critical. They wanted to get to the crash site before any insurgents.
“We tried to sort through the confusion while we were flying there,” said one of the pararescuemen, or PJs as they’re called. “We knew one pilot was alive, and that was about it.”
What occurred next will be remembered as the “most meritorious” U.S. Air Force mission of 2011. And Major Jesse Peterson, who grew up a Rush City kid, was part of the elite team that received quite an honor for the effort.
The National Aeronautic Association presented the prestigious Mackay Trophy to crew members of Pedro 83 Flight during the association’s annual fall awards banquet Nov. 14 in Arlington, Va. Fifteen of the 20 heroic men attended the event, where they were recognized by a crowd and United States Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh.
Pedro 83 Flight crew members distinguished themselves in combat search and rescue operations on April 23, 2011, while assigned to the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. It was on this day, the team lived up to the Pararescue motto: “These Things We Do, That Others May Live.”
“It was an incredibly complicated mission,” said Peterson, who graduated from Rush City High School in 1994, in an interview with the Post Review last week.
Flashing back to the mission, Peterson recalled reaching the crash site overhead by helicopter, with only about 15 minutes of darkness remaining. Decisions had to be made swiftly.
“We spotted the wounded pilots’ signal with our night vision goggles, so myself and two other PJs hoisted down to assist,” he said. “He was in pretty rough shape from the crash but mumbled through his broken jaw that his co-pilot was still trapped in the wreckage, about 300 meters down the mountain.”
Racing against the exposure of daylight, the crew opted to send its other two PJs down to cut the man free with extrication tools. While they were hoisting down by cable, enemy fire rang out from a nearby village and hit one of the helicopter crew members in the leg.
“He was bleeding profusely, so they departed immediately for the hospital, leaving us with just one rescue helicopter overhead,” Peterson remembered. “As those two PJs moved to the crash site, we voiced that we were ready for pick-up. The first time our helicopter came overhead, gunfire started to hit the rocks all around us, and they aborted the pick-up attempt.”
Then a second time, Peterson and crew managed to hook the pilot up to a steel hoist cable that had been lowered from the helicopter. The ground was just too rocky to land. Yet the men had made the connection and gave the signal to “raise.”
“That’s when rounds started to hit around us again,” Peterson said. “They sheared the hoist cable … (and) as the steel cable fell into our hands, we thought for sure that we were going to be stuck there all day.”
So they began to scan the mountain for a place to set up and defend themselves. A few minutes later, however, while setting up security and trying to figure out where the shots were coming from, their helicopter approached for a third time, hovering just feet off the rocks.
“We tossed the injured pilot in and then jumped on board ourselves,” Peterson recalled. “Right then, about a dozen AK-47 rounds ripped through the skin of the aircraft, one of which pierced the hydraulic fluid line that ran across the top of the cabin. With fluid spraying all over us, we made several attempts to pick up our other two PJs, as well as the other pilot, at the crash site.”
But their helicopter was barely flying, and it was dangerously low on fuel. They had no choice but to depart the area.
Spending another five hours stuck at the crash site, the other two PJs defended themselves, along with the remains of the pilot who had died, against enemy attack.
Not long after Peterson and crew were forced to vacate the scene, a 16-man infantry team from the Iowa National Guard was placed near the edge of the village in an attempt to move to the crash site by foot.
“They were immediately pinned down by enemy fire, and three of their men were shot within minutes of hitting the ground,” Peterson explained. “Our replacement rescue helicopters, with a fresh batch of fully-rested pararescuemen, spent the rest of the morning trying to get into the valley to retrieve the injured and isolated personnel.”
In the end, Peterson and crew were successful in retrieving the downed aircrew members.
“Personally, I was humbled by the courage and selflessness of everyone involved, especially that of our rescue pilots and the infantry platoon from Iowa, men who voluntarily risked their lives ‘so that others may live.’”
Peterson said he escorted the injured pilot back to Germany, where the pilot underwent surgery and everyone was debriefed. “Within days, (the pilot) was itching to get back to flying, despite learning that he was in fact shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade,” he said.
To this day, Peterson keeps in touch with him, along with the widow of the pilot who didn’t survive. She was six months pregnant then; she has two little girls she’s solely looking after now.
“There are lots of sacrifices that have been made by military spouses and family members across the country since 9/11,” Peterson stressed. “I can’t even imagine what it was like during Vietnam, Korea, World War II and World War I.”
Growing up here
Born on November 12, 1975, Peterson grew up in the small town of Stark and immersed himself in extracurricular activities at nearby Rush City schools.
In high school, he kept physically fit and won letters in cross country, wrestling and track. He participated in choir, all-school plays, Spanish club, Knowledge Bowl, student council and National Honor Society. He was a Homecoming King candidate, too.
“My class of 1994 was small (around 30 total), and many of us went there from kindergarten through 12th grade, so we knew each other like family,” Peterson fondly recalled. “We developed a sort of healthy competition between many of us, and we were always pushing each other, whether it was in the classroom learning geometry, playing the drums, running a mile on the track or mano-y-mano on the wrestling mats.”
Aside from the “incredible group of friends” that he grew up with, Peterson remembers the many role models who had an impact on his life.
“Our school secretary, Jackie, taught so many of us important life lessons before, during and after her battle with breast cancer,” he noted. “She had a passion for life that was contagious, and I still smile each time I think of her, which is often.”
Peterson added, “We had many selfless and talented teachers there that were always pushing students beyond their comfort zones. Mr. and Mrs. Bungert, Mr. Koepp, Mrs. Proulx, Mr. and Mrs. Tripp and Mr. Smith are just a few that come to mind.”
He also appreciated those, including Bob Frandsen, who volunteered their time to coach high school athletes in achieving personal bests. “He (Frandsen) set the example for students by sharing life experiences, living a healthy lifestyle, working hard and playing hard.”
Paul and Vivian Pasche, his parents (Robert and Elaine Peterson) and grandparents (Harold and Leone Peterson, of Harris) were positive influences, too. “I can’t thank them enough for the example they worked so hard to set,” Peterson said.
He also has some advice for current students back home in Rush City.
“Dream big, work hard and play hard,” he suggested. “Life is too short to take it too seriously, so have fun and continue to push yourself just a little bit each and every day — whether it’s academically, spiritually or physically. Think hard about what you want out of life. Make some challenging goals and keep your eyes open for opportunities, which will undoubtedly present themselves if you’ve got a positive attitude.”
Joining the Air Force
Peterson heard very little about the military while growing up in the Rush City area. All he knew is he wanted to go to college and the Air Force Academy was 100 percent tuition free and on the edge of the mountains in Colorado.
So, he pursued it, was nominated by former Sen. Paul Wellstone and started a few weeks after graduating from high school.
“Since my eyes weren’t good enough to fly, I had planned to get my free education, do my five years working some … desk job in the Air Force and then get out to start a ’real life’ as a civilian,” he said.
Within a few years at school, however, Peterson looked into all the opportunities offered by the Air Force. So he started skydiving through the Wings of Blue parachute team.
“That’s when I first heard of an elite group of men called Pararescue,“ he noted. “Their selfless motto, ‘These Things We Do, That Others May Live,’ really appealed to me at the time, but unfortunately it was only made up of around 400 enlisted guys. I was going to be an officer, so there was no opportunity to proceed down that path.”
At graduation, with most of his buddies heading off to pilot training, Peterson sought to become a Special Operations Weather Team member — the most operational job he could find due to his mediocre vision.
“My small team trained to go to austere places like Afghanistan and send back weather observations to help keep helicopters and other aircraft informed of the visibility, wind speed or ceiling height in key locations,” he said.
Peterson enjoyed the job, until a few years later the Air Force decided to make a few changes. The Air Force created 100 officer positions within Pararescue, called Combat Rescue Officers, and started to allow people to get corrective eye surgery, he noted.
Excited, he jumped on both opportunities and started the two-year process of cross-training. But it wasn’t easy.
“The initial selection course … lasted three months, and 90 percent of those who began either failed, quit or were injured during the process,” described Peterson, comparing the intensity of it to the BUDS program that SEALS go through.
“It was surreal,” he continued, “and the quality of guys that ‘the pipeline’ produces at the end of two years worth of selection and challenging courses, including scuba, freefall and survival schools …, that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
He added, “Every pilot in the Air Force knows that if bad things happen, and they’re forced to eject over enemy territory, the most highly trained rescue professionals in the world are coming to get them — no matter the circumstances. I’m proud to be a part of that team.”
Scary rescue in Alaska
As difficult as the rescue mission was in Afghanistan, Peterson confessed he and teammates felt much more at risk and in danger when responding to a plane crash on a remote Alaskan glacier during a blizzard in the summer of 2010.
“The plane crashed at 8500 feet, and we didn’t think they were going to survive very long out there in the storm,” he began. “Our helicopters dropped four of us off underneath the weather (about 3,000 feet below the crash site and 5 miles away), and we started skiing up through the blizzard with warm clothes and medical equipment for the survivors.”
It ended up taking Peterson and crew about 24 hours of climbing to navigate around obstacles and reach the crash site.
“Our two teams got separated and somehow managed to not fall in any crevasses,” he said. “Then the helicopter, trying to land up there to get us all off the mountain, crashed right in front of us and rolled a few times down the glacier. The ordeal lasted almost four days. Each of us experienced frostbite and hypothermia, and the family inside the crashed plane (visiting from Texas) got quite a bit more than they bargained for on their ‘flight-seeing’ tour, which was only supposed to last a few hours.”
Peterson is currently stationed at the 306th Rescue Squadron in Tucson, Ariz., where he and teammates work to maintain their skills.
“It takes a constant focus to be true rescue professionals and to be ready for whatever the current administration (the American people) asks us to do next, whether that’s somewhere in the Middle East, South America or right here at home,” he explained.