VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE -- As the third largest Air Force base, Vandenberg is a premiere location, not only for polar orbiting launches, but also for exercises. For this reason, Tiger Rescue IV was executed March 25 through 31, here.
Tiger Rescue IV was a joint-unit rescue operation using assets from the 55th, 58th, 71st and 129th Rescue Squadrons, with support from the 30th Operations Support Squadron, and 30th Space Wing Safety, and many Vandenberg Airmen.
As one of Vandenberg’s photojournalists, I had the opportunity to document this exercise, first hand, on the ground.
After snapping my initial pictures at the airfield of the two HC-130J’s with Space Launch Complex-3 sitting in the mountains to the distance, I ran inside to catch the end of the mission brief.
The mission was simply put for the team I would attach to. “You all will be staged as a convoy that hit an improvised explosive device, and the Pararescueman will provide you lifesaving support”.
Nodding in excitement, the nine of us hopped into some off-road 4x4 all-terrain vehicles. Following a dirt path we arrived to an area that reminded me of my first wallpaper, ‘Bliss’. The green hills that surrounded us complimented the saturated blue skies, but the serene landscape would not deescalate the exercise.
As the on-the-ground medics dressed some of Vandenberg’s finest actors with synthetic wounds, 30th Security Forces staged two Humvees for our Airmen to wait in.
After a few passovers, the PJ’s were clear to jump. Forming a line in the sky, the whole team landed in successive order.
From the time they landed until their parachutes were fully packed up, our actors were screaming from the Humvees for medical attention.
Led by their Combat Rescue Officer, the team of PJ’s established a prime location to deliver medical sustenance in a ditch 100 yards from the convoy.
Tactically aware of the vulnerable convoy position, the team began to methodically remove the screaming patients. Those who were unable to walk from their ‘injuries’ were transported on stretchers to the ditch.
It was my job to stay within an arm’s reach of the medical evaluator so that I could document, while not being treated as a casualty, or worse, an enemy. Only dropping the camera to watch my step, I navigated the field of cow pies.
By the time the medical evaluator and I reached the ditch, the PJ’s had already diagnosed, numbered, and categorized patients into locations based on injury severity.
If there was any comfort gained in having all the patients removed from the exposed Humvee, it was quickly lost by the sound of gunfire along the tree line. Security Forces supplied some Airmen to play the role of enemies. The team swiftly transitioned from being medics to tacticians, which set up the team rifleman to quickly spot and mitigate the threat.
Gun fire was sporadic the following hours, and as the sun began to set behind the tree line, the entire field was shaded with an orange glow. All the while, the HC-130J was awaiting the call from the team CRO to drop off food and water.
After being called off several times from making a low flying maneuver due to 50-caliber machine gun fire behind the hills, the HC-130J left the airfield to make the drop.
With precision, each drop was so close to the ditch that not a single PJ had to over expose themselves while retrieving it.
As the sun set completely, the team lowered their night vision goggles into place as I attached a night vision lens to my camera.
The temperature dropped with the sun, so the PJ’s wrapped the patients with extra blankets. Back on the airfield two HH-60G Pave Hawks were awaiting clearance to fly, but due to thick fog the call never came.
The next best option was to transport the patients in trucks back to the airfield. After securing the route the trucks were going to take, the PJ’s loaded the truck, and the exercise was over.
The best part of my job is seeing the different sides to our Air Force. The communication from the ground, to the air, and to the airfield was impeccable. Vandenberg AFB is a space base, and yet when duty required it, Team V Airmen shifted gears to fit the needs of the exercise.
Exercises are great for practice, but what most Airmen don’t realize is that Team V supports other units across the globe daily. By providing a safe launch site, Vandenberg has helped place satellites that provide data to our men and women overseas in real world operations too.
It was a humbling opportunity to see Team V Airmen perform in an exercise outside of our normal duties, and to see how our support here goes so much further than launches. Just another day in Space Country.