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Two harrowing US military rescues offer haunting portrait of Afghan war

Rescue pilots in Afghanistan describe flying five to 10 combat missions a day, on constant alert. Describing one mission, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor last week, Col. Christopher Barnett says:  'It was like the Alamo.'


Col. Christopher Barnett, then commander of the 34th Weapons Squadron.

US Air Force

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Special Operations Forces were pinned down in the violent southern region of Kandahar when Air Force pararescuers got the call to come to their aid.

The Air Force’s 34th Weapons Squadron’s Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) team, comprised of experienced helicopter pilots and combat medics known as pararescuers, had just arrived in Afghanistan.

But over the course of the next 24 hours, it would be in the midst of combat operations, after receiving a desperate call for rescue.

It was a pace that would continue throughout the unit's time in southern Afghanistan. For the next 80 days, it would be on alert 24 hours a day. During that time, crews flew a total of 550 combat missions, saving more than 300 lives, by the estimates of Col. Christopher Barnett, then the commander of the 34th Weapons Squadron. 

For most of his crew, that meant they were flying anywhere from five to 10 combat missions a day.

But in April 2009 came a call that was particularly dire: A US Army Green Beret unit in Helmand Province was pinned down under heavy attack from Taliban forces.

“These guys,” Colonel Barnett recalls, “could not get into their vehicles – could not, you know, move further down the road and were taking fire from really different directions. So they really couldn’t do a whole lot about it.”


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