Oldest active-duty enlisted: sums up 39 years of service

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Denise Johnson
  • Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs
From the Vietnam Conflict to Operation New Dawn, the oldest active-duty enlisted Airman recounts his 39-year careeer as he prepares for his final two years in uniform. (Editor's note: this is the final in a five-part series of articles on the Air Force's oldest active-duty enlisted Airman. Catch up with the first four articles at www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123373580www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123374760; www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123375325; and www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123375635. Tech. Sgt. Anthony Gomez contributed to this series.)

Chief Master Sgt. Paul Koester, Pararescue Functional Manager for the Battlefield Airmen Branch at Pacific Air Forces Headquarters here, swore his final oath of enlistment Dec. 7 under Gun Turret One aboard the retired USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor.

The 58-year-old pararescueman commemorated the 72nd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the onset of his final tour of duty after 39 years of service. Koester joined the Air Force in 1974.

The Air Force will bid farewell to Koester and the under-manned pararescue career field will be shy yet one more PJ in just two years when Koester faces mandatory retirement.

"With less than two years left I am forced to get out due to High Year Tenure. Most chiefs hit HYT at 30 years of service, but in my case -- because I did time in the (Air National Guard) -- it's age-based, so by the time I hit 60 years old I have to retire," Koester said.

Koester's long-standing career is on the eve of many final milestones. Besides the final re-enlistment ceremony Dec. 7, Koester's last permanent change of station will take him back to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, in August.

"Sixty doesn't seem much different than 58 to me -- and granted, I am in no position to be an operator anymore -- but I feel I am still in a position to contribute based on my experience and all my deployments," Koester stated. "I spend a lot of time staying in shape ... I work out once every day at home station and twice a day when I'm deployed or TDY. I do something different every day: swim, bike, crossfit, kayak, whatever ... I mix it up a little bit to keep it interesting."

Koester said he doesn't ever see himself letting go of his desire to stay in shape, though his life will likely become a bit quieter.

"My life will definitely slowdown in the regard I won't be traveling as much, but between the gunsmithing, skydiving, as well as my skydiving videography business, those interests will keep me active and keep life exciting. I don't see me sitting around fishing and watching game shows," he said. "It's kind of funny because the two things I do as a hobby have their roots in my military training. They became working hobbies, but it's not really work because I'm so passionate about both areas: the skydiving and working with weapons. The gunsmithing is especially a labor of passion, something I really enjoy doing."

Koester recently suffered injuries in an off-duty parachuting accident which may impede his plans to continue skydiving. He is undergoing treatment for the injuries he sustained when he went through a "bad opening." The parachute, upon deployment, struck Koester in the head which caused him to black out and subsequently led to a semi-conscious landing. He suffered a broken sternum and ribs as well as various other injuries.

"Although I was only semiconscious during the fall, all the years of training allowed me to react instinctively and that's why I'm here to tell the tale," Koester said. "I still believe skydiving is one of the safest sports out there. It was a stroke of bad luck but luckily the safety mechanisms that were in-place worked. That, along with years of training and staying in shape physically, enabled me to live through it."

Koester took his first jump in 1975.

Koester also noted he is grateful for his skydiving partners' quick responses during the incident, "It's important to be able to trust in your wingmen, that's something we learn day in and day out in the Air Force; it is never more self-evident than during a crisis."

Time will tell if Koester's injuries will have a long-lasting affect on his future in skydiving. His schedule won't lighten up in regard to his other activities, however.

Before he hangs his uniform up for the last time, Koester continues to impart the wisdom he's gleaned from nearly four decades of service to an array of audiences at various speaking engagements. His 39 years encompassed four wars, 650 static-line jumps, 350 freefall jumps; three C-130 engine fires; two semicontrolled helicopter crashes; the first two official Air Force expeditions on North America's tallest peak; sweating out being in the crosshairs of a sniper in Afghanistan; flying into the towering plume of smoke from the Twin Towers; nearly 100 rescues; all of which add to the summation of lessons he said helped shape the man he's become and the character he bears: lessons and experiences he attributes to his fellow PJs, Airmen and family.

The father of five said he gained the inspiration to face the myriad challenges and dangers from the love of his family. Koester said he was lucky enough to enjoy a brief respite where he could embrace fatherhood and a somewhat steady operations tempo during the period of his life when his family was beginning to grow.

"I really lucked out as a parent because most of my children were born between 1988-91 and I didn't have to travel a lot until about 1997, so I was there a lot when they were growing up, even up until about 2001 I made most of the soccer games and school events," Koester explained.

That time gave him the opportunity to build a bond with his children, all of who have inherited some of his traits. From the sons who mirror Koester's adventurous side by engaging in activities such as skydiving and ice climbing, to his daughter's love of education; from his oldest son's love and dedication to fatherhood and family, to his youngest son's budding career in the Air Force; all seem to reflect different combinations of their father's legacy.

"I couldn't be more proud of my five children," Koester said. "They and my wife are the driving force behind all that I've been lucky enough to accomplish and experience. I've been extremely blessed as far as family, including my Air Force family. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the people who had my back and lifted me up when I needed it ... and sometimes even when I didn't. I try never to take those lessons or people for granted; I also try to convey those messages when the opportunities arise."

The almost-retired living legacy said he does his best to share what he can, depending on the venue and the format and the audience, but some messages are standard across the board.

"Everyone always wants to know how things have changed in 40 years. Well, that's kind of a hard question; it would take 40 years to explain. I always tell them I really enjoyed the first 10 years because we didn't have computers," he said with a grin. "... but when I came in, in '74, our troop strength was over 900,000. Granted, Vietnam was still winding down, but we have a third of that now. There's no more fluff, there's nothing left to cut, everybody is essential; and so there is no margin of error. The stuff we used to get away with back in the day? That's a piece of history. Everyone matters and we can't afford to be losing any more people, so make sure you're doing the right thing for the right reason. In other words: be the example, not the exception."

Koester's son, Senior Airman Ryan Koester, is a staff-sergeant select currently attending Airman Leadership School at Luke AFB, Ariz. His other sons live in Montana, Colorado and Nevada. Koester has a 1 and a half year old grandson and another grandchild due in March. His daughter is a junior at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

According to www.afsoc.af.mil/specialtactics/pjtraining.asp, "A PJ's primary function is as a personnel recovery specialist, with emergency medical capabilities in humanitarian and combat environments. PJs deploy in any available manner, to include air-land-sea tactics, into restricted environments to authenticate, extract, treat, stabilize and evacuate injured personnel. Their motto "That Others May Live" reaffirms the pararescueman's commitment to saving lives and self-sacrifice. Without PJs, thousands of service members and civilians would have been unnecessarily lost in past conflicts and natural disasters."

Visit www.afsoc.af.mil/specialtactics/pjtraining.asp for a more in-depth look at the pararescue career field and the training it entails.

Editor's note: go to www.pacaf.af.mil to hear and read this series encompassing Koester's illustrious career. Catch up with the first four articles at www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123373580www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123374760; www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123375325; and www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123375635. Tech. Sgt. Anthony Gomez contributed to this series.