Oldest enlisted Airman recounts first of 4 decades 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 lessons and memories from his first of four decades of service ... (Editor's note: this is the second 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.)

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.

Koester said he was enamored with the pararescue, or PJ, mission from the moment the PJ recruiters showed up to the basic-training class.

"(PJ recruiters) showed us a 16mm movie of actual footage shot on a rescue mission over there in Vietnam, pulling a pilot out of the jungle," Koester explained. "There was a lot of appeal for a young man to be a PJ: with the jumping, diving and flying; the medical training of course ... 'but,' they said, 'there's one caveat: your life expectancy's only about 35 seconds on the ground,' that's the average -- that's before you end up getting whacked. But that didn't overshadow the fact that this looked like a really exciting job to me."

Koester attended jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1975 where he took his first static-line jump in March of that year.

"It seemed very unnatural to jump out of an airplane. You see people do it, you talk about it, you hear about it, but to take that first step ...," Koester simply went with the flow. "There's actually thousands of people doing it in that class, so it's like, well, this must be something I'm supposed to do -- but yea, it's kind of weird the first time you jump out, especially when the canopy opens up, 'hey, no kidding, this thing actually worked,' and your floating down and then, 'hey, this is kind of cool.'"

Koester completed five static jumps, got his wings and then went on to several more schools before arriving at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, in November 1975.

Ending up in Alaska for his first assignment set him up for what he now calls "my best assignment yet." It was here that Koester spent four life-altering years with the 71st Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron.

"Probably my best assignment because that's the one I cut my teeth on and because we were exposed to so many different things up there, climbing and skiing and all kinds of great stuff ... and it was an extremely rewarding mission," Koester explained.

According to Koester, Alaska averaged about 300 predominately-civilian, private plane crashes per year during the years he spent with the 71st ARRS. He and his team mates rescued and recovered lost, injured and deceased hunters, hikers, skiers, climbers, boaters and myriad other victims of Alaska's harsh weather and terrain conditions.

"That was the height of civil rescue back then. The state is so vast and we were the only game in town at that time, so the civil authorities would call us and the (C-130 Hercules) crews out to do the search-and-rescue thing," Koester said. "Our guys up there still have an alert commitment today."

The odds were seldom in the pilots' or rescue crews' favor since many missions began with high hopes only to end in tragedy.

"(Survival rate for small-engine plane crashes) was about 50 percent: the ones who survived versus the ones who died on impact; so it would become a recovery mission for us. We'd go in there, put them in a bag and drag them out," he said.

The 21-year-old Colorado Springs, Colo., native got a full-speed-ahead course on life and death.

"Of the ones that survived, usually the injuries were fairly severe. They'd most-often survived several hours, if not the night, out in the field waiting for someone to come get them because that state is so big and the places they flew were so remote. They were usually caught in a mountain pass or something like that, so we'd sometimes land the helicopter next to them or sometimes they'd hoist me in if the terrain was really rough. Then we'd fly them back," Koester explained.

The day-to-day toils combined with his still-developing maturity kept Koester busy enough not to notice the long-term picture.

"It's funny because at the time you'd just think it was another day, you had no idea of the impact it had on building your character -- not only having to do with the whole life-and-death thing and the risks associated with your job -- but the fact you had to come face-to-face with so much death when you went out in the field, when you saw the plane crashes," he said.

The sights for a young man in his early twenties were sometimes overwhelming.

"The most horrific [plane crash] I ever saw, I think it had 11 bodies on board: they had hit the side of a mountain doing about 180 knots and literally the bodies just exploded. There was just hardly anything left ... it was a big family, too," Koester's voice drifted off. "That kind of stays with you awhile; and I'm sure it adds up with all the other stuff we've seen."

Not every mission ended in tragedy, though. The ever-maturing Airman also learned to appreciate happy endings and a bit of luck.

"We did go on a mission my last year [in Alaska]: there were three Airmen from the fire department who got lost hiking and they were up in a canyon a couple hundred miles from the base when it started raining real heavy. They ended up spending five days stuck on a little, tiny island in the middle of a raging river. We were getting ready to call off the search; we thought we had lost them," Koester said. "We were flying back from the search area on our last pass when the engineer on the right-hand side of the helicopter just happened to look down and spotted them; pure luck on their part. So we spun around and they hoisted me down about 230 feet. We plucked these three guys out and flew them back to Elmendorf. That was pretty cool; it was a good ending ... Just a stroke of luck for them."

The memories, both good and bad, come back to Koester from time to time.

"Every once in awhile I think about those guys and think, 'I'd like to see them now,'" he said.

Pararescuemen rarely see the victims after they are rescued -- the PJ's job is to return the injured personnel to safety and medical specialists and then prepare for the next mission, often ending each rescue without closure.

"Once we had a husband-wife crash with a third relative: they had a pretty hard landing and they got pretty cut up, but we found them and got them home," Koester reminisced. "Like a month later the pilot came out to the base and brought us a couple of gifts and took us out to dinner ... that was pretty neat. Usually you never see the victims afterward, but this guy made a point to come out to the base to say 'thanks.'"

Technology has changed a lot since Koester began a life and career anchored in life-and-death scenarios nearly four decades ago, including the introduction of global positioning systems, desktop computers and mobile phones.

Newer technology might also have made his two climbs of Mount McKinley a bit easier. Koester was on the inaugural and second official Air Force expeditions of Mount McKinley, becoming a member of the first and -- at that time -- only certified high-altitude rescue team in 1977 and 1978.

Koester's second expedition proved to be yet another opportunity for the young Airman to provide a glimpse of the man he was to become.

Two PJs had to be air evacuated from the climb after suffering acute mountain sickness and cerebral edema. Koester helped a third climber who also suffered from mountain sickness back to base camp. The young pararescueman and his patient faced 70-knot winds that plunged the wind chill factor to 80-100 degrees below zero during their descent, according to an August 1978 article, Rescue men climb to top, by Capt. Richard B. Hodges, 21st Composite Wing Information Officer.

The climb has since become a tradition for PJs throughout the Air Force.

Alaska proved fruitful and character-building according to Koester who tallied 75 rescues, a bachelor's degree in aeronautics and reached the summit of Mount McKinley, setting him up for a lifetime of challenges and successes.

Koester left Alaska in 1979 for McClellan AFB, California, where he cross-trained to become a combat controller in 1982. He also got his first taste of freefall skydiving during his subsequent tenure at Little Rock AFB, Arkansas; an experience he claimed was much different than the static-line jumping he started back in 1975.

"I went to freefall school in January of 1983: something I found more terrifying than static-line jumping," Koester said. "Now you're up at, I think it was 14,000 feet or whatever we were, and it's all on you -- you've got to pull the rip cord and there's just a lot more involved than in a static-line. You have to do a lot more and pay attention: clear yourself of other jumpers ..."

Koester said things happen "a hell of a lot faster when you're freefalling: you're falling about 120 miles per hour if you're flat and stable."

Fast and stable seemed to be the norm for Koester both in the air and on the ground as he transitioned through and overcame the many challenges life threw at him.

The impact from the drawdown of personnel following the end of the Vietnam Conflict was rapidly making its way through the Air Force by the early 1980s. This was one of several factors which Koester said led him to separate from active duty while stationed at Pope AFB, North Carolina.

With just more than a decade of service, Koester took advantage of the offer of a civilian job in Annapolis, Md. His transition to the civilian sector in 1986 would lead to an array of paths that Koester said he never would have foretold at that time, including earning the first of two masters' degrees by the end of 1987. He left uniformed service with a plethora of experience and several pastimes that would continue to serve him even through today: being a father and a PJ, flying, skydiving and gunsmithing.

Editor's note: continue to watch www.pacaf.af.mil to find out how Koester found himself back in uniform amid the smoldering rubble at the base of the Twin Towers on 9-11 in this series encompassing Koester's illustrious career. Catch up with the first article in the series at www.pacaf.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123373580.