National Geographic show features Rindge airman

Last modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2013
“Scatter! Scatter! Scatter!” The U.S. Air Force’s six-person rescue team stationed at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan heard the familiar call. Within three to five minutes, the airmen would be on board a Pave Hawk helicopter and on route to help save the life of a fallen comrade.

No call was ever the same, but the facts of this case especially weakened the airmen’s hearts; an American medic had been struck by an improvised explosive device, or IED, in the Afghan desert. The medic sustained severe burns on one of his arms and a leg required amputation. He was losing blood quickly and without a timely blood transfusion in flight to the hospital he would likely die.

For the U.S. Air Force’s medical rescue team risking their own lives to save the soldier, they knew how easily the tables could have been turned; the patient could have easily been one of them or a brother airman.

More than a decade since the invasion of Afghanistan, America’s longest war remains mostly invisible, but a new National Geographic Channel television series promises to provide viewers with a glimpse into the mystery. The series features Rindge native and U.S. Air Force Combat Rescue Officer Eric P. Hansen and is changing the type of access everyday Americans have to the war in Afghanistan.

May 2012 marked the first time in the war’s history that the U.S. Air Force allowed cameras to follow teams of airmen on high-risk missions to save their critically wounded comrades from the battlefields. In a six-part National Geographic television series, “Inside Combat Rescue,” which premiered Monday night, airmen share their stories from the front lines in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Hansen is featured in Monday night’s episode.

“The show should be a healthy look into the war for many Americans,” said 28-year-old Hansen, who leads a six-man medical rescue team featured in the program. “Critical injuries happen every day and it is good for people to get a small glimpse into the sacrifices of our rescue forces.”

Hansen — a 2003 Conant High School graduate and 2007 graduate of the University of New Hampshire — told the Ledger-Transcript on Monday that he knew at an early age he wanted to join the Air Force and serve his country. His first tour of duty to Afghanistan begin in May 2012 and ended in October 2012, a portion of which time a National Geographic camera crew was at Kandahar Airfield filming for the network’s series.

Hansen will deploy again this May; it is uncertain at this time whether or not he will serve in Afghanistan, although the probability is high, he said. Hansen has committed to serve with the U.S. Air Force until April 2017; at that time, he said he and his wife, Lauren, will decide what the future will hold for their family, including 11-month-old daughter Zoe.

The U.S. Air Force’s pararescuemen, or PJs, their leaders and combat rescue officers are highly trained to perform recovery operations in any type of situation, according to Hansen, including rescues from high angle cliffs, collapsed structures and water. As the team commander, Hansen is responsible for making sure his team can recover the patient, even if that means air or ground fights with the enemy.

“We’re on alert from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. and vice versa to preform high-risk rescues at any time,” Hansen said. “With Afghanistan, we talk about the ‘golden hour.’ If we can get someone from the time of injury to surgery within an hour, they have a 90 percent chance of surviving.”

After receiving a call into Kandahar Airfield, Hansen said his crew is on a fully equipped Pave Hawk helicopter within three to five minutes. While the team is in the air, Hansen said they receive information on the extent of the patient’s injuries. In a number of cases, medics perform blood transfusions and other life-saving procedures that prevent an amputee from bleeding out during air transport.

“I definitely have been on many missions that are burned in my memory. It is impossible to not carry those images with you,” Hansen said. “What gives me peace, though, is I know we are doing good things. The whole push is to save lives.”

The television premier of “Inside Combat Rescue” falls at an interesting time in the war’s history, Hansen said. President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address earlier this month that 34,000 troops, slightly more than half of the American force, will be out of Afghanistan by the end of February 2014. The withdrawal, Hansen said, means Afghani forces will increasingly be in charge of the country’s defense.

“The question really is should we leave or not? Not should we be there,” Hansen said of the troop withdrawal. “I can’t talk on a national level, but I see the atrocities that the Taliban is responsible for and us being there is a good thing.”

Approximately 50 percent of the critically wounded that the U.S. Air Force rescues from the battlefields are Afghani forces, Hansen said, adding that viewers of “Inside Combat Rescue” will have a chance to see a couple firsthand. As to whether Afghani troops will be ready to execute similar rescue missions without American aid, Hansen said he is not sure.

“Coalition forces are working really hard to make this transition happen. It’s a real struggle we are facing,” Hansen said. “There are a lot of people that are ready to step up and certainly we will all be watching.”

When Hansen learned from top military leadership that National Geographic would be filming for a few weeks at the start of his mission, he said he was against it because he worried the airmen wouldn’t get any time to decompress.

“I didn’t want my guys having cameras in their face when they needed the personal time,” he said. “But the crew that National Geographic sent out for the show gave us that space and were incredibly professional.”

National Geographic cameramen were never allowed on missions, Hansen said. Instead, each pararescuemen and their leaders wore small cameras, known as gopher cameras, on their helmets and the helicopters were also outfitted.

“Inside Combat Rescue” airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel.

Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 228 or adandrea@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @alyssadandrea.