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News | May 23, 2013

Guardian Angel conquers mountains, saves lives

By Senior Airman Blake Mize JBER Public Affairs

Elite is a WORD that gets thrown around with reckless abandon. Politics. Sports. Advertisements. The word is as overused as an Alaska snow shovel.

The 212th Rescue Squadron on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and one of its members in particular, is truly elite.

"Pararescuemen are in the only Department of Defense career field specifically dedicated to personnel recovery," said Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Bill Cenna, pararescueman with the 212th RQS. "We are the only full-time-alert pararescue squadron. There are other pararescue squadrons, but none of them have a full-time alert commitment like us. The other squadrons just don't have the real-world commitment that keeps us on our toes, keeps us training and keeps us thinking about the mission."

What that means is of all the units that make up the U.S. military's most specialized troops, the 212th RQS is the only one with the unique capability of being ready at all times, no exceptions. That's elite.

Their training further illustrates the point.

Mount McKinley, or Denali as it's known to Alaskans, is the highest peak in North America. From base to peak, it is the largest mountain in the world entirely above sea level. Wind chills of more than 100 degrees below zero and actual temperatures almost that cold have been recorded on its slopes.

Pararescuemen with the 212th RQS climb it for training purposes.

"We operate in mountains just like we operate on land, tactical environments and the water, so it's just one facet of our training. We chose Denali because of the opportunity it presents and the challenge of actually surviving out there. When you're out there, resources and rescue are very limited, so you basically have to take care of yourself and plan ahead," said Cenna, who was among a group of five Airmen from the 212th to summit Denali recently. "It's about 90 percent survivability and 10 percent climbing. It's all about planning, logistics, surviving and knowing what to do and when to do it, as opposed to technical climbing."

A true Alaskan, Cenna added the temperatures the Airmen faced, which reached an estimated 40 degrees below zero, were not unbearable.

"It wasn't extremely cold like a winter ascent would be, but it was definitely not as warm as it will be in June and July when some other groups will be summiting," he said. "The cold weather was a challenge for us, but we are trained, equipped and prepared for cold weather operations."

That being said, even though they were technically walking in Denali National Park, this jaunt up one of the world's Seven Summits was no walk in the proverbial park.

"It's not a place where you can hang out for long. If you take your glove off and set it down, the wind is going to blow it away, you're not going to have a glove, you're going to get frostbite on your hand and then you're done. It's the little details that matter," Cenna said.
"We had a very, very strong team. We had five individuals that were solid. Two of us had been up there before, and the three other guys were very solid in their actions. We had no altitude illnesses, no injuries, no crevasse falls and no broken bones. We were safe up and down the mountain."

So why the extreme training? Why do something that is a distant, bucket list-type pipe dream for even some of the most adventurous?

"There are lots of mountains in Alaska. We can be asked to perform missions all over the state in any mountain range, so we need to be prepared. The training ground on Denali is the cream of the crop when it comes to training opportunities," Cenna said.

You see, for pararescuemen, this type of training is what they're all about. They are among the most uniquely-trained and well-rounded troops in the entire U.S. military, bar none. Their capabilities rival any special operations unit there is. And for those who are truly among the best, like Cenna, it leads to great things.

In a ceremony May 18 at the Arctic Warrior Event Center on JBER, Cenna and four of his 212th RQS brethren were recognized for acts of gallantry performed during recent deployments to Afghanistan.

Air Force Capt. Chris Keen, Air Force Master Sgt. Chad Moore, Tech. Sgt. Chris Harding and Air Force Staff Sgt. Nic Watson, all of the 212th RQS, each received a Bronze Star medal, which is an incredible honor reserved for those who display heroic or meritorious actions while in a combat environment. It is fifth-highest combat decoration an individual can receive.

Cenna, however, distinguished himself among the group of heroes. In the same ceremony, he was awarded two Bronze Stars and a Silver Star for his actions during three separate scenarios over the course of two different deployments. The Silver Star is the third-highest award a military member can earn.

"There are guys who have done more and received less," Cenna said humbly. "There are plenty of guys in this building [the 212th RQS] that have gone to war many more times than I have and done a lot more for the team and for the United States than I have."

Although he insists any pararescueman would have been equally valiant, Cenna admits that the situation during which he earned the Silver Star was special. He and a team of fellow PJs were sent in to recover a pair of OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter pilots who had crashed in the mountains of Afghanistan. After recovering one of the two pilots, Cenna and a teammate were dropped close to the crash site to contract the second, who they soon would learn had died from his injuries. Enemy combatants' gunfire then forced the recovery helicopter to retreat, and the two of them, with the assistance of friendly combat aircraft, were forced to fight off enemy combatants for more than five hours while protecting the remains of the pilot and maintaining the integrity of the crash site.

"There were a lot of close calls. It was a mix of skill and luck that we're still alive," Cenna said. "There were times when we would have to take cover and use our overhead air support in the fight. As aircraft were flying over, the brass [from the rounds they were firing] was landing right next to us. It was raining brass."

Cenna and his fellow pararescueman were eventually able to outlast the enemy and successfully recover the remains of the American pilot and others who did not survive the battle. He said the key to their survival was to remember their training.

"You just have to go to the basics, keep it simple and think about your mission and your job. That's priority number one," he said.

As impressive and heroic as his actions may sound, Cenna is insistent that any PJ in his squadron would have done the same and is reluctant to differentiate himself from his team, even after the abundance of recognition and praise he received May 18.

"It was definitely a special day," Cenna said. "It means a lot to me to be recognized, so I'm not taking that lightly. But there are a lot of guys on this team that have taught me a lot and I've learned a lot from them, so I owe them a lot of the credit. It was just time and place. Anyone else in this building would have done the same, if not better."

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