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Rescuing the rescuers from the trauma of seeing buddies crash to their deaths

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE — In his mind, Lee Von Hack-Prestinary kept circling the crash site.

His friends were in the wreckage below, and he couldn’t help.

The memory brought him to tears.

Seated across from him, at Patrick Air Force Base near Cocoa Beach, a trauma expert watched his body language. She encouraged a drill, coaching him to use the tools she trained him on to unclench while remembering the pain.

It allowed him to accept what he knew consciously — that there was nothing he could have done.

The meeting lasted just 40 minutes.

But Von Hack-Prestinary walked away free of the weight he walked in with.

That’s what his boss, Air Force Lt. Col. Tim Hanks, had hoped for.

• • •

Hanks and his men are pararescue operators with the 308th Rescue Squadron based at Patrick, part of Air Force Reserve Command. They are members of an unsung force of airmen whose rigorous training rivals that of Navy SEALs. Only about 10 percent of those who try make it. Those who do are expert marksmen, parachutists, scuba divers, mountaineers and trauma medics.

Known as PJs for short, they are members of the Air Force Guardian Angels, a program that has conducted more than 12,000 combat rescue missions, often under fire, since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, according to the Air Force.

They also have rescued more than 5,000 civilians worldwide during crises such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. They live by the Pararescue Creed: "These things we do, that others may live."

On March 15, two of Lt. Col. Hanks’ men and five others died in a helicopter crash in Iraq. Those who came to the rescue, including Von Hack-Prestinary, experienced some of the worst trauma of their careers.

Hanks, 45, who commands the 308th, and his squadron commander knew how trauma could ruin careers, wreck marriages and lead to drug and alcohol abuse, even suicide.

Air Force rules are vague about pulling people out of a combat zone right away, but Hanks took the unusual step of pushing to send them home immediately. He wanted to get them help from a particular trauma expert — Carrie Elk of Tampa, who specializes in military post-traumatic stress training.

His immediate supervisor, Col. Kurt Matthews, 49, commander of the 920th Rescue Wing, instantly agreed and helped find people from other units to fill in. Matthews’ superiors agreed, too, but they don’t have the final say. Others didn’t understand the urgency. Some wanted time to "think about it."

Hanks kept pushing. He thought his persistence might end his career. But he made calls and kept moving through the chain of command until he got his way.

His men were back in Florida about 72 hours after the crash.

• • •

The night of the crash, Air Force Maj. Stephen Sprinkle, 36, the 308th’s acting commander, contacted Elk, who rearranged her schedule, packed and hit the road for Patrick.

Elk, 48, reached out to Lisa Fernandez, 53, the unit’s "key spouse," who kept spouses and loved ones informed and batted down rumors like those spreading about the crash on social media. The two women gathered spouses and loved ones, the base military chaplain and the Military Family Life counselor. Elk answered questions and offered tips on what to expect from the men coming home and how to deal with it.

About eight hours after returning to Patrick, Hanks and his men were in their team room, sitting in a semicircle around Elk, describing to her what happened.

Around 10 p.m. on March 15, Von Hack-Prestinary, an Air Force technical sergeant, was sitting in the door of Jolly 52, an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter, flying toward a landing zone in Iraq. Jolly 52 was following Jolly 51, another Pave Hawk.

The two specially outfitted rescue craft had taken off from their base in central Iraq, where Islamic State fighters still have a presence.

As his Pave Hawk descended toward the landing zone, Von Hack-Prestinary noticed towers and wires close by. Then he saw a bright glare in his night-vision goggles.

At first, he thought it was a flare.

But a few seconds later, the lead helicopter made an emergency call, urging Jolly 52 to pull up and away. Then Von Hack-Prestinary saw a bright fireball on the ground.

On the other side of the helicopter, looking out at the tragedy unfolding, Air Force Staff Sgt. Josh Langley also saw the bright flash, then another. Like his fellow PJ, he knew it was bad.

"I think immediately what I need to be doing medically, what gear I need, and then (when) we are loitering for so long, how close friends we were with the guys," said Langley, 29.

"There was a period of time when we think about them and think about their families. But then you let that get out of your head pretty quickly because it’s not going to help anything until later."

The crash of Jolly 51 still is under investigation but is not believed to be the result of enemy action.

There were seven men in the burning helicopter, two of them best friends with Von Hack-Prestinary and Langley, as well a combat rescue officer from another unit and four flight crew. Still, Jolly 52 had to fly around for 40 minutes to find a safe place to land, clear of the field of wires below them.

Eventually, a third Pave Hawk from their squadron landed, carrying a crew including Chief Master Sgt. Mike Ziegler, 51, squadron manager, and Tech. Sgt. Christopher Moore, 42.

They joined the crew of Jolly 52 hauling rescue equipment over rough terrain to reach the crash site. Once they arrived, the PJs faced a frustrating wait to recover the bodies from the still-burning wreckage as ammunition on board fired off in the searing heat. Some rounds nearly hit the men.

"We were all locked onto the event," Von Hack-Prestinary said. "We were working as fast as we could. Nobody was emotional. It was a terrible thing that happened, we all knew it, but knew that the best way to respect our guys was to get them home."

• • •

The recovery teams soon realized they’d have to leave the crash site without their fallen comrades. The bodies were retrieved later. On the way back to base, they encountered a dust storm and nauseating turbulence.

"Now you are starting to think of what is the next step," Ziegler said. "Tears run down your face but nobody can see it because it is blacker than s--- in the back of the plane."

Back at the base, Lt. Col. Hanks prepared to meet his men.

"I kept relying on the training I received from Doc Elk," Hanks said. "So I kept telling myself, ‘Take deep breaths. Take control. Get the situation moving.’?"

As soon as the men returned, they were whisked away to a tent. Before a debriefing with intelligence officers and others, they sat around, talked about what happened, how they could cope — and the men who perished.

Master Sgt. William R. Posch, 36, of Indialantic and Staff Sgt. Carl P. Enis, 31, of Tallahassee "were two opposite individuals," said Von Hack-Prestinary.

"Bill was a very intense individual but a great friend and he was just the most engaging father. He was constantly at baseball games with his kids, trying to engage them in any group sports activities he could, constantly working with them, bettering them."

Posch did the same for his squadron mates, Von Hack-Prestinary said.

"If he liked you, he pushed you, which is what he did with me."

Posch was a lifeguard on Jacksonville Beach and encouraged a number of fellow lifeguards, including Staff Sgt. Langley, to join the PJs.

"He was truly like my older brother," Langley said

Enis, on the other hand, "was this super mellow guy," Von Hack-Prestinary said. "Easygoing. Carl was a very talented guy. An amazing hunter and fisherman, and he had a way of sucking you into his world. He showed me how to hunt and spear fish and all this other stuff. And most of the guys in the unit who liked do anything similar to that, he kind of brought them into his world."

• • •

As they returned to their tent, squadron manager Ziegler recalled warning his men, "We are definitely going to experience some rise and falls of emotion as the adrenaline wears off.

"Sleeping, eating, all of those things are going to be affected, but we need to keep this open, start having conversations, and the only reason I was able to think through that process is because of some training I had with Doc Elk in the past."

PJs, Ziegler said, consider themselves weapons systems and they see the training Elk offers as part of what’s required to keep the system working.

Ziegler met Elk two years earlier at a medical operations meeting for PJs. Founder of the Tampa-based Elk Institute for Psychological Health and Performance, she has been working with military members and families for several years and began working with PJs on a sailing retreat several years ago.

She travels to Alaska, New York and elsewhere to attend training exercises and offer instruction on psychological health and performance, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder resilience.

At Patrick, she performs quarterly training sessions, teaching the best ways to relax in the face of fight-or-flight triggers that interfere with how the mind processes memories. The men of Jolly 52 went through the training. She’s worked with spouses and loved ones on the same techniques.

So when it was time to notify personnel back at Patrick about the tragedy in Iraq, Elk was one of the first people called.

• • •

Meeting with Elk as a group and individually paid off, the men said.

Ziegler said her training helped him avoid drowning his sorrow in alcohol, as he had before. After a memorial for the crew of Jolly 51, Ziegler said, he declined offers from friends to go out drinking.

"I said ‘absolutely not,’ because that’s where the demons are."

Elk said that from what she’s seen, the men have responded well.

"At 30 days out, they are no longer focused on the traumatic event," Elk said, "but instead are grieving their teammates and dearly loved friends in a healthy way and starting to get back to their mission and preparing themselves to support the rest of the team still deployed as they begin their own journey of healing."

That view is echoed by Air Force Maj. Victor Vargas, the squadron’s flight doctor, who was at the base in Iraq at the time of the crash.

"Grieving this way is probably the best way to do it," Vargas said. "I’ve been around other scenarios and other squadrons and units that didn’t do anything like this and, like chief alluded to, we ignore it and we drink it and we keep moving on. And that gives a shorter shelf life for these guys to do their job."

The Air Force provides a wide range of mental health services to those experiencing trauma, but Hanks said his decision to send his men home was rare. Typically, dealing with trauma occurs only before and after a deployment.

Officials with U.S. Central Command in Tampa, whose area of responsibility includes Iraq and the Middle East, declined comment. Officials from Air Combat Command, which has operational control of Hanks’ unit, did not answer questions. Air Force public affairs said it does not keep track of such moves.

Hanks said he and Ziegler, his squadron manager, will keep pushing for a similar quick response across the military — even if this persistence comes at a cost to their careers.

"We’re working an unknown right now, and a shoe can drop any day," he said. "We don’t care."

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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