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Humanitarian Exhibit: Relief and Rescue

The United States Air Force has a long and proud history of saving lives and providing aid to the injured. When disaster strikes, highly trained USAF personnel execute seemingly impossible life-saving rescue missions in the world’s most dangerous and remote areas. These intensely driven men and women are jacks of all trades, capable of solving any problem and willing to sacrifice all so that others may live.

Hurricane Katrina
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall along America’s gulf coast. One of the most devastating hurricanes in American history, Katrina struck like a hammer, with sustained winds of more than 140 miles-per-hour followed by a massive 25-foot storm surge. The hurricane flattened trees, demolished buildings and roads, flooded towns, and knocked out power to millions. Hurricane Katrina was responsible for the deaths of more than 1,800 people and almost 125 billion dollars in property damage.

The city of New Orleans, Louisiana was hardest hit. Katrina’s storm surge broke through the city’s levees flooding about 80 percent of the city. Rising water trapped more than 100,000 people in their homes without food, water, electricity, and any means to call for help. The US Department of Defense and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) created a Joint Task Force to handle the humanitarian response to Hurricane Katrina. It was the largest deployment of military forces for a civil support mission in United States history. The US Air Force responded with total force, calling up elements of the Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, and Civil Air Patrol to aid the massive relief operation.

USAF helicopters and pararescue teams saved thousands of people stranded on rooftops by the hurricane’s rising waters. Transport aircraft flew emergency responders into the area and airlifted almost 11,500 tons of equipment and supplies to the coast, including much needed food and clean drinking water. Air Force and Air National Guard aircraft evacuated more than 25,000 refugees to temporary homes and 2,600 patients to medical facilities across the country. The US Air Force deployed medical teams to supplement a critical shortage of trained doctors and nurses in the disaster area, treating more than 16,714 patients. Civil Air Patrol personnel from 17 states flew hundreds of missions over Louisiana and Mississippi to survey damage to homes and communities and assist in rescue relief.

9/11 and the Civil Air Patrol
On the peaceful morning of September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners shortly after take-off in the skies over the east coast of the United States. Intent on causing fear and destruction, the terrorists turned the airplanes toward New York City and Washington, D.C. seeking to strike symbols of America’s economic, military, and political power.

Terrorists crashed two airliners into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City causing their complete collapse and destruction. Another struck and damaged the west side of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. but failed to destroy the building. Passengers aboard the last flight fought back, thwarting the terrorist’s plans before it too crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in history killing 2,977 people and injuring 25,000 more.

In the aftermath of this senseless tragedy, the Department of Defense ordered the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) to assist with the emergency response. CAP aircraft flew some of the first reconnaissance missions over “Ground Zero” at the collapsed World Trade Center towers. The aerial photographs they provided helped first responders better coordinate search and rescue efforts. In the raw, chaotic days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the CAP successfully completed its mission and demonstrated its capability as a Total Force partner of the United States Air Force.

2018 Thai Cave Rescue
On June 23, 2018, a youth soccer team entered Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand for a short day trip. Their visit took a tragic turn as flood water from recent rainfall trapped 12 teenage boys and their coach inside the cave—two miles from safety. The cave’s remote location and rising flood water hampered initial rescue efforts. For more than a week, the boys were stranded behind the rising water without fresh air, food, or sources of light. Their plight made national headlines worldwide and the Thai government appealed to the world for assistance.

The international rescue effort that followed involved more than 10,000 people from all over the world. About 40 US military personnel deployed to assist with the rescue. Pararescuemen (PJs), survival specialists, and support staff from the US Air Force’s 353rd Special Operations Group and 31st Rescue Squadron provided medical care, communications, and logistics support at the cave site. The USAF played a key role in planning and executing the extremely difficult rescue operation. After spending more than 18 days scared and alone in the cave, the lost team was safely rescued by a multi-national team of rescue divers.

Thai Cave Scuba Suit Exhibit Case
In 2018, then-Tech. Sgt. Kenneth O’Brien was one of approximately 40 US military personnel deployed to Thailand to assist Thai authorities with rescue efforts. O’Brien, a PJ with the 320th Special Tactics Squadron, volunteered to be one of the first US divers in the cave. He also aided in multiple days of preparation leading up to the rescue, moving equipment and supplies through the cave system and clearing obstacles and hazards in the sump between Chambers 2 and 3. During the three days of rescue, O’Brien was the lead medic in Chamber 3 and assessed all twelve boys, the coach, and rescue divers for injuries to determine if the rescue could continue.

Each Airman typically chose their own wetsuit and other gear based on their personal needs and preferences, often using things they had collected over their careers. The wetsuit, water boots, gloves, and helmet worn by O'Brien throughout the eight-day mission are on display in the exhibit. The buoyancy compensator, tank, and facemask are representative examples of other equipment O’Brien used.

“Sked” Pararescue Stretcher
Skeds are portable and lightweight stretchers used to safely carry wounded people. Their straps, buckles, and webbing secure a person in place and enable rescuers to either tow them across ground or lift them vertically or horizontally to safety. Originally designed as a sled-like game carrier for hunters, its smooth and durable surface allowed it to skid across all kinds of ground. Its name eventually resulted from a combination of these two primary functions. Members of Air Force Special Operations Command’s 320th Special Tactics Squadron used Skeds to help transport all 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach over dangerous terrain within the Tham Luang Cave system in July 2018.

Compact Rubber Raiding Craft
Compact Rubber Raiding Crafts (CRRCs) are lightweight and compact inflatable boats used by the USAF for special operations missions and water search and rescue. Inflated, they can be airdropped into disaster zones. Uninflated, they fit easily into the bed of a small truck for ground transport. This CRRC, manufactured by Wing Inflatables, is fitted with a 40 horsepower out-board engine that can operate on other fuels if needed, including jet, diesel, and even kerosene.

In the aftermath of hurricanes USAF airmen use CRRCs, like the one on display in the exhibit, to patrol flood waters in search of stranded people. Made from polyurethane coated fabric with composite material floor boards, they are durable and puncture resistant, and can withstand damage from submerged de-bris such as posts, trees and shrubs, and vehicles. They can carry a maximum load of 10 passengers.

Callie: K9 Search and Rescue
Military working dogs (MWDs) perform many specialized missions throughout the Department of Defense. They provide installation security, assist law enforcement, and can be used to detect drugs or explosives. Callie, a Dutch Shepherd, is the only MWD trained for search and rescue (SAR) missions—working with her handler to locate missing people during crises or disasters.

In the early days of Operation Unified Response in 2010, USAF Special Operations Command  PJs were sent to rescue children thought to be trapped inside a collapsed building. The PJs spent three days working the site without success before a FEMA team arrived with SAR dogs. Within 20 minutes the dogs cleared the area and found no one trapped inside the building.

Master Sgt. Rudy Parsons, a PJ with the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, Kentucky Air National Guard, recognized what SAR dogs could bring to future special operations missions and championed the development of a DoD SAR dog program. In 2018, with the support of the DoD’s MWD program, Callie was acquired and began training with Parsons through the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

Callie was trained to detect live human scent, allowing her to locate people lost or trapped in urban, wooded, or even flooded areas. She is also qualified for most PJ insertion methods, such as fast-roping, rappelling, and parachuting. While other local, state, and federal organizations have SAR dogs, Callie’s combination of training and skills allow her to quickly reach people in need, even in the most challenging situations.

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