Oldest active-duty enlisted Airman: in the line of fire

  • 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 Afghanistan-deployment experiences after rejoining the active-duty Air Force. (Editor's note: this is the fourth in a series of articles on the Air Force's oldest active-duty enlisted Airman. Catch up with the first article in the series at www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123373580; the second article at www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123374760; and the third article is at www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123375325. 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.


He served more than 10 years in the active-duty Air Force before separating and subsequently joining the Air National Guard.


"Well, after 9-11 ... that was a big game changer because everybody got to see on the news what was going on as well as some of what we were doing. There's no way you're telling (your family) everything you're doing: one, because a lot of it is classified; but two, just the nature of it, because it can get pretty hairy," he explained.


Koester said as the deployment tempo increased his family eventually got the gist of what he'd be doing and what to expect by what he was packing. He was deploying up to eight months a year as a Guardsman by 2003. Koester tallied nearly 10 deployments with the Air National Guard, though he had yet to find his way to Afghanistan.


"I said, 'I may as well just come back in (active-duty Air Force) ... this is foolish.' It seemed like the right thing to do. My career field manager called me and said, 'I can make this happen.' I kept my rank and time in service when I entered active duty because we were so undermanned in the career field. Timing worked out," Koester explained.


Thirty days later Koester had orders and moved his family to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. He got fully requalified as a PJ at the age of 48 in 2003.


Koester didn't rest long at home station before hitting the deployment road in 2005. The 50-year-old took a team of PJs on a four-month deployment to a destination which had thus far eluded him. He deployed to Kandahar Airfield in south Afghanistan on a combat search and rescue mission.


"There was still a fair amount of shooting going on. We'd usually go out in two-ship formation helicopters. Most of the time we were picking up either 'GIs' who had been shot or blown up, or locals and (Afghanistan National Army) soldiers who had been injured. We'd fly out of Kandahar in a couple-hundred-miles perimeter ... a couple hairy missions, especially when you were flying at night and there's really crappy weather in the winter time," Koester explained. "We had a few close calls but we came home without any bullet holes."


A bit more than a year later, he sewed his chief master sergeant stripes on in January of 2008.


"Two months later, in March of '08, I got tasked with my first deployment as a chief as the senior enlisted advisor for a Joint Special Operations Command unit. I can't tell you much more than that, other than it was a good deployment to cut your teeth on as a chief -- and that I was based out of (Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan)," Koester stated.


A year later, in 2009, now-Chief Koester filled a 180-day-U.S. Special Operations Command deployment in the Khyber Pass, Afghanistan. The Khyber Pass is the most-northerly pass between Afghanistan and Pakistan.


"SOCOM needed a special operations forces E-9 to go as the SEA for 180 days to what was called the joint border coordination center. It was the first unit of its kind over there. That team kind of facilitated operations between the Afghans, Pakistanis and U.S. forces for engagements in that area. We were in civilian clothes, no military gear, beards ... the whole thing. I did that for six months; I was the first Air Force guy to fill that position," Koester said. "It was a really interesting mission because we were right on the border in the Khyber Pass, the whole silk-trade route, Genghis Kahn, 3,000 years of history ..."


And as history is known to repeat itself, Koester bore witness to further violence in the infamous pass.


"There was a hell of a lot of shooting going on over there. I saw two (United States) fire bases get burned to the ground -- actually watched them burn to the ground when the Taliban overran them," Koester relayed the memory. "We had our little outpost there that was adjacent to a little military police company down the road, but we were there for a whole different mission. Our camp was only about a hundred-meters-by-a-hundred-meters square. We had to do all our own perimeter security; if we came under attack we were completely on our own."


Koester said many of the personnel weren't from the SOF field so he and two others took it upon themselves to provide weapons tutelage to the inexperienced members.


"Only three of us in that compound had any serious experience with armaments, so at nighttime they did their job and in the daytime we were showing these kids how to work as designated marksmen, how to set up claymores, how to throw grenades; stuff they've never been exposed to before. I was 54 at the time. I was old enough to be their dad and then some," he said.


The camp and personnel survived that deployment, though there were a few close calls.


"That time was pretty hairy, especially when I saw those firebases get burned down. We had a station where we checked locals who came across the border. That got blown up twice by suicide bombers. We caught a sniper once up on the ridgeline marking our position," Koester recalled. "We just saw a lot of funny stuff going on and you never knew who you could trust. It was a weird place and I was lucky to make it out of there alive."


The rewards outweighed the risks for Koester.


"It was a great deployment. You really felt like you made a difference, because we'd do what we were doing to help the good guys. It was rewarding to see the work pay off and I really enjoyed teaching those kids how to be ready and prepared to respond," he concluded.


He returned from the Khyber Pass in January of 2010, the following September he was reassigned to his current position at JBPH-H.


  Editor's note: Continue to watch www.pacaf.af.mil for the final article in a series encompassing Koester's illustrious 39-year career. Catch up with the first article in the series at www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123373580; the second article at www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123374760; and the third article is at www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123375325. Tech. Sgt. Anthony Gomez contributed to this series.