MIGHTY HISTORY

6 Air Force pararescuemen who risked it all 'that others may live'

This article is sponsored by The Last Full Measure, now playing in theatres! Get your tickets here.

Troops headed into combat know that an entire medical chain exists to keep them alive and as healthy as possible for as long as possible if they're hit. The goal is to get them out of harm's way within the "Golden Hour," the first hour after injury, to maximize their odds of survival and recovery. But while medics and corpsmen are the backbone of that chain, the Air Force has teams of specially trained personnel who exist solely to put their lives on the line to save others in the most dire of combat medical crises.


These Air Force pararescue personnel deploy forward with other elite forces and fly into combat to save troops already under fire. They live by the motto, "that others may live."

Here are six of them that epitomized those words.

1. Airman 1st Class William Pitsenbarger

(U.S. Air Force)

William Pitsenbarger was the first enlisted airman to receive the Air Force Cross, later upgraded to the Medal of Honor, and his sacrifice is still the standard to which modern pararescuemen strive to honor with service. Now, his amazing story is finally reaching the masses when The Last Full Measure hits theatres on January 24, 2020.

Check out the trailer below:

William Pitsenbarger embodied service. He volunteered for service in Vietnam, he volunteered to be lowered into a minefield to save a Vietnamese soldier, and, in April 1966, he volunteered his way into a massive firefight that would claim his life.

When an Army company stumbled into an ambush, the mortar, machine gun, and rifle fire came so quick and thick that the soldiers were soon unable to defend themselves while evacuating their wounded. Pitsenbarger recognized what was happening and got special permission to join them on the ground and prepare the wounded for evacuation. Pitsenbarger got nine of the wounded out on three flights before it became too dangerous for the helicopters to operate.

Still, he stayed on the ground, running ammo to American positions under fire. Sadly, due to at least two gunshot wounds, he was killed. He was credited with directly saving nine lives and with medical aid and battlefield actions that may have helped save dozens more.

His award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, making him the first airman to earn the award.

2. Chief Master Sgt. Duane Hackney

(U.S. Air Force)

Duane Hackney is arguably the most decorated airman in U.S. history. We can't go into all of his heroics here, but he served from Vietnam to Desert Storm and amassed an Air Force Cross, a Silver Star, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Purple Hearts, and 18 Air Medals.

His first Purple Hearts came almost immediately after he arrived in Vietnam. A .30-caliber round struck him in the leg and he got a fellow pararescueman to treat it so he could stay in the fight. He was awarded the Air Force Cross for extracting a downed pilot from a fierce firefight, immediately getting shot out of his helicopter during extraction, and then doubling back to the crashed helicopter to check for survivors before finally evacuating again. He received that award in a ceremony where he also got the Silver Star for bravery during a completely unrelated rocket attack. In short, he's built one hell of a resume.

Despite surviving a combat tour of Vietnam that started with a Purple Heart and ended with an Air Force Cross, Hackney volunteered to stay for another three years.

3. Tech. Sgt. Keary Miller

(From left to right) Tech. Sgt. Keary Miller, Senior Airman Jason Cunningham and Staff Sgt. Gabe Brown pose for a photo just weeks before March 4, 2002, where Miller and Cunningham would earn the Air Force Cross and Brown would earn a Silver Star.

(U.S. Air Force)

Pararescue specialist Tech. Sgt. Keary Miller was involved in the Battle of Takur Ghar in Paktia Province, Afghanistan. On March 4, 2002, he was inserting with an Air Force Combat Search and Rescue Team to rescue two service members that had become separated after their helicopter was shot up on the ridge. Miller's team faced heavy fire while landing and was forced down, crashing onto the mountain.

Miller quickly led the establishment of a hasty defense and then began rendering aid to the wounded. Four of his team were killed almost instantly and five were wounded, but Miller re-distributed ammo to those able to fight and maintained the medical interventions on the wounded for the next 15 hours in bitter cold. He was credited with saving wounded men, allowing the soldiers and airman to keep fighting until rescued, and allowing for the successful recovery of seven sets of U.S. remains.

4. Senior Airman Jason Cunningham

Senior Airman Jason Cunningham was on the same MH-47E helicotper as Tech Sgt. Miller when it was shot down. Cunningham immediately began treating the wounded when they hit the ground and moved injured personnel from the burning helicopter. He was critically wounded while defending patients, but he kept doing everything he could to save others.

He directed the disposition of the wounded and handed their care over to a medic before succumbing to his injuries. He was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross on Sept. 13, 2002.

5. Master Sgt. Ivan Ruiz

(Video Still by Air Force Senior Airman Stephen Ellis)

On Dec. 10, 2013, pararescue craftsman Master Sgt. Ivan Ruiz was attached to an Army Special Forces and Afghan Commando team for a raid in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. The nighttime operation met enemy contact almost immediately, and Ruiz's team took out four insurgents. Ruiz moved forward with two others into a courtyard where the others were hit.

Rather than withdraw to cover, Ruiz laid down heavy fire, killing one insurgent and suppressing the others long enough for him to reach the wounded men. Despite heavy machine gun fire, grenades, and accurate rifle fire, Ruiz stayed exposed until other teammates reached him, then he gave lifesaving care to his buddies under fire.

He's credited with saving their lives and helping to pin down and kill 11 enemy insurgents.

6. Staff Sgt. Thomas Culpepper

(U.S. Air Force)

Pararescueman Staff Sgt. Thomas Culpepper was part of a call to rescue three members of an Army Pathfinder team trapped in an IED belt on May 26, 2011. One Pathfinder was severely injured and the other two were trying to keep him alive, but extracting them from what was essentially a minefield would be tricky.

As Culpepper was raising the second soldier to the helicopter, it suddenly lost power and entered free fall. Culpepper kept control of his casualty and the helicopter came to a stop just a few feet from the ground. They escaped the IED belt and made it home -- the injured soldier, tragically, did not survive his wounds.

Culpepper later received the Distinguished Service Cross with Valor Device.

This article is sponsored by The Last Full Measure, now playing in theatres! Get your tickets here.