First Person War Stories

Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.

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Capt. Tom Smith: Combat Pararescue in Iraq and Afghanistan

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Capt. Tom Smith attended the Air Force academy before becoming a Combat Rescue Officer (aka CRO). As a CRO, Smith led a team of pararescuemen that flew into combat zones in order to save fellow military personnel and civilians. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

Today, we’ll hear from Capt. Tom Smith. Smith attended the Air Force academy before becoming a Combat Rescue Officer, where he led a team of pararescuemen that flew into combat zones in order to save fellow military personnel and civilians. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thomas Smith:

Tom Smith, a former captain in the United States Air Force as a combat rescue officer for Air Force PJs.

So, what led me to the Air Force Academy first and foremost is being a gullible 10 year old that lived in Alaska. But more importantly, my mom and dad divorced when I was five, and had a really strong mom. I lived with her since I was five. We lived in Florida first, then we moved up to Tennessee for work, and then she's super adventuresome so we moved to Alaska for a couple years. And when I was in Alaska, we just got there, had just moved in and we were staying at a bed and breakfast while we looked for a place to stay.

Obviously they have all kinds of bases up in Alaska, and at our bed and breakfast one morning at the table there were these two guys in fighter suits, or fighter outfits, with their hat on, had these giant academy rings, and they were just the coolest thing a 10 year old had ever seen. So I asked what they did. They told how they were fighter pilots, of course, and how awesome they were. I saw their big academy rings and I said, "Hey, what are those?" They told me about the Air Force Academy and that they paid you to go to school and they gave you some great training, and I took it hook line and sinker kind of deal. I was like, that's it. That's what I want to do. Was really excited from that. And since I was 10, my mom poured into me. I was able to focus everything on that.

And so high school, did every little thing I could, from Civil Air Patrol from sports, and I was so naive that the only place I applied to was the Air Force Academy, no other places. And so March 31st, at least when I was in, was the last day you could find out before if you're accepted or not. And so it was like mid-March and I was like, "Oh my God, I made the worst decision ever. I haven't heard anything back. What am I going to do?" And my backup plan was actually to go work on the crab boats up in Alaska for that summer if I did not get in. And March 31st, I got that phone call saying, "Hey, you're accepted."

And so, young buck, 18, went to Air Force Academy, basic training, and you get humbled quite quickly about how you can not deal under stress when somebody's yelling at you. And I was definitely a big goober and didn't know what was going on for the first couple months. And I very specifically remember...

I'm not always the best rule follower, which is part of the reason why I went Air Force Special Operations, but I snuck a phone in near freshman year, to the Air Force Academy, and I called my other buddies that were at the University of Tennessee, and it's like Friday night and I'm like, "Hey guys, what are you doing?" They're like, "Oh, we're having a blast. We're doing this and that." They're like, "Hey, what are you doing?" I was like, "It's midnight. I'm ironing my underwear because I have a 5:00 AM Saturday morning inspection with a big parade afterwards." These fighter pilots in Alaska never told me about this aspect of the Air Force Academy.

But at the end of the day, such a wonderful opportunity to really focus in with people from all across the United States. I went to high school in east Tennessee and it was predominantly Caucasian, and to go the Air Force Academy with people from all over the US was a wonderful experience. And I was on my path to being a pilot. I got really lucky to get my pilot slot my junior year, and I started flying single engines for senior year.

And my roommate was also on the pilot track and he came home every night and just talked about how much he loved all of that stuff. And I was like, "I hate driving." My back hurts sitting in there for so long. I get bored really easily, I probably have ADD. And I felt bad that I almost had taken a pilot slot from somebody else that probably had the same passion as my buddy, Dave. And luckily at the same time I had this kind of gut feeling. And so they have this opportunity at the academy for people that want to cross train into other services, especially Special Operations, whether it's the Navy or Army, and so I got involved with that program within like two months. I'm like, "This is it." I love small teams. I love that camaraderie that really difficult trying circumstances kind of put you in, and so I gave up my pilot slot and I hadn't gone through selection yet. And so the big thing that I had was I got maintenance officer for a year and a half while I was going through my selection to try to be a combats officer on the Air Force side.

And so I'll pause there, but that led me up to my decision to cross over, and overall I'm really thankful for my year and a half as a maintenance officer. I got to go to Ramstein in Germany, and that really opened up my eyes just being stationed overseas and getting work with multinational partner forces, but most importantly the big challenges, maintenance officer, there's 80 young unlisted underneath a second Lieutenant, and so that massive challenge from day one is something I really respected and was definitely really hard as a second Lieutenant. Some folks in the Air Force don't get that experience from day one to try to lead 80 people, and so overall really glad I had that weird year and a half to kind of try other opportunities of leadership in the Air Force.

Great question on the concept of fighter pilots. And the concept and overall the leadership theory, I think, holds right where, hey, back in the day you have to be... You're in enemy territory and you're your own person. You’ve got to make your own decisions and there's a lot of weight there. But no, as we go to different environments, now it's a lot more collaborative. You got to build teams, even as a fighter pilot. You're leading multiple people, multiple units, and sometimes as squadron commander you've been leading for 20 years and that might be the first time you actually have to do broad leadership, not only at the peer-to-peer level, which a lot of fighter pilots have been doing for 10 years, but now you have a peer subordinate type of relationship. And that's a really big challenge that I got experience as a maintenance officer, and that's that concept that I loved from...

I played rugby at the academy and it was like, hey, one of the most difficult types of leadership is peer to peer, but also that peer subordinate where you got to show up and you got to walk the walk and especially really not hiding from difficult challenges, but going through those really difficult times with your enlisted, and they get to see who you really are. You can't hide anything during those really difficult challenges and training environments. And so, luckily, I had a very close friend circle and all of them are pilots to this day and they understood I was the odd person in the group, but they understood the why.

So I personally never really experienced any pushback, but I still think the Air Force is facing a massive challenge on really not preparing its officers at a young age, whether in the Army and Marine Corps. From day one, you're surrounded with 40, 60, 80 young Marines or young soldiers, and you have to really rely on your senior NCOs to get you through, and it makes you put your humility on quite quick.

When I came onto the teams on Special Operations, my first NCO had deployed 10 times. And I'm not leading this person. I'm coming in and being of assistance, but you're really coming in, "I really hope you decide to mentor me, Senior NCO." And that doesn't happen, I would argue, on the pilot side, for at least until like a Major, if not Lieutenant, Colonel. And I think that has some implications when you are almost 40 years old, now you have to become squadron commander to actually try to do subordinate leadership correct. I think we do a disservice to that, and so I think that's why the Air Force has stumbled sometimes with high level leadership decisions, because we get put at a very young age, especially fighter pilots, on, "Hey, you can do all of this yourself." And then, 20 years later, you're starting to flip the script on having to learn peer subordinate leadership.

So I actually had a big stumble, which was a big growth point, but I always say I have some Irish blood, and so I always have had some like to get in fights, when needed, with rugby. And so I actually was only supposed to be a maintenance officer for six months, and so on the transition to Special Operations, they have something called Phase Zero, which is basically just for the officers. You go out, at our time you go up to Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington, and you go through a week of kind of like hell week. They make your ruck all day, and they do a whole lot of stuff in the pool, underwaters. They black out the pool. It's completely dark. You had to swim stuff in your full uniform and our BDUs at the time, and just all kind of stuff to really gut check you to make sure, hey, do you really want to do this, because the next time you're going to be doing this is with all of your enlisted during your selection. And so, my selection was me, another officer and 90 other young men at that point in time. And so that was that one week, and it's called Phase Zero. And the very last day we were going through our selection, we hadn't slept for a couple days, we're exhausted, and one of the officers I ended up getting a fight with because I felt he did some things wrong toward the other people and the teammate.

And so I survived Phase Zero, but I got asked to come back again six months later, which was a massive blow cause I had to go back to Germany, and maintenance officer. And I'll never forget Captain Ryder, and if he's out there, God bless him, but I just remember his conversation. It was like, "You know, Tom, just some people aren't cut out for Special Operations. We're glad to have you back." And that was just like a hot knife to the heart, you know? I was like, "Oh my gosh. I got to get my emotions under control, without a doubt. I can't just be focused on physical, I just can't focus on mental, it's got to be a comprehensive leadership." You know? And so that six months was really humbling, and I also got to continue to grow as a maintenance officer.

And so I went back in the fall and survived Phase Zero and got picked up, and so it's a great thing they do for officers. Then we got relocated out to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, and you get a couple months to actually train up before you go to our big selection course down in Texas. And so we showed up in February of 2009 to my indoctrination course, they call it. And it's just eight weeks of each Special Operations, whether Navy SEALs or Green Beret, they have their own torture devices. Green Beret love to deprive you of your sleep, and just have you ruck a lot in the mountains. Navy SEALs have sleep deprivation and really cold water. PJs, Pararescue in our career field, they have a pool and they love to try to drown you in that pool, and the whole thing is trying to get you calm and to relax. With oxygen deprivation, your brain starts freaking out, and so it tries to get you to calm down, focus on your task at hand.

And so we started with 90 folks with two officers, and we finished two years later. I graduated with six of those individuals. I got really lucky I didn't get hurt, my knees and ankles held together, and just had a great team around me. But we go into indoctrination course, which is just kind of like selection course, then after that each person has their own route. But then I went to Airborne, Army Airborne, for three weeks down in Fort Benning, Georgia, and all of us spoiled Air Force, we call it Air Force Appreciation Month because you go down there and the barracks are not what we call Air Force standards. And I told my enlisted guys, I'm like, "Do not share with the Army folks that we are getting additional pay," because it's called hardship because we are staying in different barracks. We got like 150 bucks a month because we were staying at substandard barracks. But great experience, obviously, going through Fort Bending and Airborne is historic to say the least.

Then after that we go to a host of schools from HALO, so freefall school. We go to combat dive school down in Florida. We go to survival school. And then we have our finishing school back in Kirtland Air Force Base, and that's where our enlisted guys go through all of our medical training and pause right there.

When I was in, it was still all male. And I know they're making that transition to obviously be more inclusive, which I think is a great move. Our PJs are getting their butts kicked with multiple deployments back to back. We need the best and brightest, no matter where you come from or your sex. So I'm glad that the Special Operations is really starting to grow on who they're including in that. But at my time it was just guys going through my selection at my unit. And so they go through their own paramedic training for about six months. The officers kind of go through some more tactical commander, ground commander force training, and then we graduate. So the officer's training is about two years. The enlisted PJs are about two and a half because they have that additional medical training.

And so then you get to your unit, and there's several units across the United States. I went down to Valdosta, Georgia Moody Air Force Base. And then you have to go through another four months of Green Team, which is like, "Hey, everything you learned in the schoolhouse, don't do that. This is how you do it in the real world." And then finally I was ready for my first deployment in 2011, where I went to Iraq as we were closing down Iraq for the first time.

Yeah. So kind of three worlds, kind of. And so we call it the Big Blue Air Force, which is the traditional mission, which was Vietnam all the way to the Gulf War, and then little bit in the beginning of Afghanistan, Iraq was if a pilot gets shot down, Pararescue and call the combat search and rescue mission. We are going to come and get you, whether we're working with our helo partners or Hh60s or our C-130s, if we're going to parachute in, but we will come get you. We will patch you up and get you to the hospital and make sure you get back to safe territory. That's the bread and butter mission of Air Force Pararescue.

That was an enlisted job since it's beginning, but in the early 2000s, they were saying, hey, we're starting to stay on the ground a little bit longer. It was helicopter pilots, God bless them, we're the commanding officers for PJs, but now we're starting to stay on the ground a little bit longer, let's have a different type of officer. And so that's when they created combat rescue officers in the early 2000s, and we call it CRO for short. So CRO and PJ, which are probably some weird acronyms in the world, but go Air Force and its acronyms.

But since 2000, especially when I deployed, the mission set really changed a lot where the insurgency, both in Iraq and Afghanistan realized, “Hey,” sadly, “We can kill people, but if we can wound then actually call in medevac and try to down a medevac bird, that's going to be a lot more of a PR thing.” And so, Army medevacs, wonderful dust off, has a great mission, but when you call them in you have to call in one helicopter and then you got to have a two ship Apache, for example, attack helicopters, to protect them. And so they said, "Hey, we have these other assets that are in theater, in the mid 2000s, called Air Force PJs. They are sitting on alert with Hh60s. They do not have a big red cross on them." So by Geneva conventions, we're allowed to carry a whole lot of weaponry, mini guns and 50 cals on our side, and we're just two helicopters.

And so we started taking a lot of high risk medevac missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and across the theater. And so when I was in, that's almost all they did in Afghanistan and Iraq was if you got shot and it was high risk, it was probably going to be a Pararescue combat search and rescue helo team that was going to come try to get on the ground, stabilize you, get you back to the hospital as soon as possible. And so that was the majority of my mission in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, we were pulling down and we trained up a lot on medical missions. We didn't know if we were going to be busy or not. Basically, our mission was, especially at night, a lot of the Special Operation groups, whether Army or Navy, were doing hits at night to capture insurgent leaders. And so we'd preposition as close as possible to where they were doing that hit on a military base, and so if they got hurt, we'd fly in. But, luckily we weren't that busy.

To be honest, in Iraq, and the biggest eye opening experience that I'll always never forget was the disconnect of what was happening in Washington DC, and then what was happening in Iraq and where this "Special Operation" force is. And we were at Balad Air Force Base, just outside of Baghdad, which is one of the biggest military bases, or was one of the biggest military bases in Iraq. And we got tasked with... I remember seeing a vehicle yard as far as the eye could see of Humvees and old school MRAPs, all these kind of up armored vehicles. And they say, "Hey, we don't want to hand these over to the Iraqi army, and it's not worth the money to ship them back to the United States." And so for days we literally just like ripped out spark plugs from these vehicles, and it was just such a lack of planning, and we're supposed to be this leading military force and it just seemed to be complete chaos on the ground with not thinking through what we were doing. And it was just kind of heartbreaking.

And at the same time, we also got to work with some of Iraqi special forces, and these were amazing human beings. But we got to know some of them, the younger officers, the CGOs, company grade officers, the lieutenants, and the captains. And they just talked about the massive amounts of corruption and the higher up of their forces. And sadly in the dark humor of being deployed, it was like, "Hey, we're going to be back in two years, we're going to be back in four years. Let's take bets when we're coming back to Iraq." Wars should be not be started easily, and a lot of thought, and we can talk about Iraq all day, but it just really sucked being in that situation and seeing the consequences of failed policy. And then also knowing that we were likely going to become a back in a couple years. And so the people that we were picking up, especially Americans or Iraqis that were getting hurt, we weren't stabilizing the country. We weren't figuring out how to build up a better government. And we were about to pull back out and we were probably going to be coming back in a couple years. And that's what really stuck with me, just that aspect of busting your butt, putting your team on the line. And sometimes that big disconnect of what's happening in Washington, DC, however well intentioned they are and what's actually happening on the ground.

So that was my first deployment in Iraq, then they all relocated their forces in Kuwait. Surprise, two months later, one of my other comresc officers got hurt, so went down to Kuwait, which was not busy at all. And what a big leadership lesson is when you have highly trained people, if you do not keep them highly engaged they will get in trouble. So that was my number one thing every single day was really trying to keep my 12 person team highly engaged, getting ready for any type of mission, and base of our mission was if any aircraft, especially coalition aircraft got shot down anywhere in the Arabian Gulf, Persian Gulf, that we were going to deploy there and pick them up. Luckily we did not get called besides once.

That was 2012, beginning of. Then my "hot deployment" was to Afghanistan in later 2012, and we actually went to Southern Afghanistan, which is Helmand Province, which was beautiful. High mountains, but also really lush valley that they have there. And that's where the majority of their drugs come from, is Helmand Province, so it's heavily contested Taliban territory. And 2009, 2010 was when the surge was, and that's where a lot of Marines, especially, and Brits also worked at that territory, were getting hurt. And so I was coming in 2012, it was still relatively hot and sadly, three or four months prior, one of the first major base attacks that happened where the Taliban had infiltrated the base and attacked a Marine Corps Harrier unit, and they lost their commander. We're walking in, coming into that deployment hair on the back of our neck standing up.

And that first part of my leadership side was my non-commissioned officer, again, was highly experienced and I had a 12 person team, and literally the first day we get in theater you have about a week handover with the other team, and we are doing our handover. We're all on the flight line, we're at the [inaudible] helicopter, and their senior NCO, and he's already been there for four years. I'm sorry. Four months had been in theater. And you had all kinds of missions. And basically the mission was whether you're an Afghan that got hurt or whether you're an American, Marine, especially, or a Brit that got hurt, we were going to come in, get on the ground, stabilize, and get you to the hospital. And some days they had 7, 10, 15 missions where those were happening, and so it's just back to back. You're on a 12 hour shift, you go off alert for 12 hours, you come back on, and that's kind of your day in, day out.

And so we're doing this handover, very first day in theater, you're still hungover from the jet lag, all that kind of deal. And the senior NCO from the other team is telling us like, "Hey, you got to have your spidey senses at all times." He was making the argument that you can't trust anybody. And the reason why was... I'm sitting here with my whole team and we're listening to the senior NCO tell this story that they had just gotten a call three days before we came that the Brits, Marines, and the Taliban had got in a firefight, and in the crossfire an Afghan mom and her baby had been shot. And so they got scrambled, the helo unit and the PJs, and they got out there as soon as possible, and one of the worst situations ever. So they fly in two different helicopters and one of the helicopters ends up landing and all these Afghans come out from the village. And obviously when you have the helicopter on the deck, as they call it, on the ground, it's super vulnerable. You can't shoot that far. You don't see what's going on. Obviously you're a giant target to any type of small arms fire, RPGs, et cetera. And so the PJ's got onto the ground, they have all of these Afghans coming out. They don't have an interpreter with them, nor would've been helpful because it's super loud because the rotor's still going. And they do see this mom, they see this baby wrapped up in a cloth, they see blood on the outside. And they grab those two folks, and they also grab... You have to have a male escort at the time. Their male escort was like a 10 year old, one of her 10 year old sons is what they thought.

Anyway, they're supposed to do a thorough pat down of every single person before they go on the aircraft, unless you're an American or a British soldier. But they didn't because the bigger threat they were saying was, "Hey, we're on the ground. We have all of this Afghan community”, as well as they're trying to be culturally sensitive. If you have a bunch of American men patting down an Afghan woman in front of her village, what are the repercussions potentially when she does go back? And so they did really cursory, just like pat down and check, and then she got on the aircraft. And it's super loud on the aircraft, we're cramped, there is two pilots, a gunner, and a flight engineer, and then you have a three person PJ team. And now you're bringing on additional people. There's three other people in the back, so it's super cramped. They're all freaking out the Afghan mom, the son, and the PJ's trying to do an exam. Checks over the mom, she looks fine, but she's clutching onto the baby and will not let go of this baby. Luckily it's only like a 13, 14 minute flight back to the hospital. They're just trying to quickly do the examination. If they can do any help there, stabilize the baby, especially the infant. And so the mom will just not let go of the baby, because they're thinking because she's terrified, she's on a loud helicopter. We have all this VGs on, gear, we have our M4s next to us, so we don't look the most welcoming persons ever.

But finally PJ's like, "Hey, I got to do an assessment on the baby," and ends up ripping the baby away. And when he does that from the mom, a grenade falls out. And thank God the pin in the grenade was not pulled. I spent a lot of time thinking. I'm like “What type of situation in my life was that mom facing where that was the best decision, of trying to smuggle a grenade on and then blow up this helicopter and her whole family at that time?” But the NCO tells us that story our first day in the theater, and he had already been there for four months, and I was just like, "Holy crap." I was not expecting that type of story. Some folks argue that your job as a leader, especially a combat leader, is to get all your folks back home, you know? And I was like, "Oh my gosh. Wow." I'm thinking in the back of my head I don't know how to respond to what this NCO just said and how to like provide this to the rest of my team. But I felt this gut sense in my stomach that this is not the type of leadership. I don't want to think that every single person here in this country is trying to kill us because I don't think we provide the best medical care, but I had no clue how to put those to words, but I knew I didn't fully agree with what the NCO was trying to convey.

And so he finishes up about 20 minutes later. I have no clue what that old NCO said. I'm just trying to think about when this NCO leaves, how I address my team afterwards. And the old NCO walks away, and my NCO was there, Sergeant Bedell, and again, this guy had deployed 10 times, living legend in our career field, had walked the walk. Those 10 deployments he had three girls and hadn't seen a single one of them born because he was deployed during that time. And just the burden of two decades of war. We were only a decade in at that point, but there was some pretty amazing sacrifices at that point. So this guy was the pillar of our team. And when that old NCO walks away, Sergeant Bedell gathers the rest of the team and just very simply says, "I don't give a shit who gets on this aircraft. You're going to treat them like your mom because we're Americans and that's what we do." And those are short, simple words, best put by an NCO. If I had said that I'd probably done like four or five paragraphs, but ultimately he was making the argument that the job of a leader, it's not to just bring all your folks back home. It's also to bring everyone back home having done the mission to the best part of their ability, and that might include getting them hurt and or killed. But they're trying to achieve the mission, and our motto for Pararescue is that others may live. And it doesn't matter who gets on this aircraft, whether you're an Afghan, whether you're an American, whether you're a Brit, we're going to perform the top notch medical healthcare that we can.

And he said those words and then he walked that out for the next four months. We had multiple missions where MRAPs were blown up, flipped over, gone through. Afghans were hurt going through IED fields that weren't fully swept, and just getting the mission done agnostic of who the heck was on the ground that was injured. And that just really resonated and stuck with me. And now we're seeing it today. We have folks that come back from combat and they say that the biggest things they regret is not living up a hundred percent to their ethos, or trying as hard as they could have, or taking care of X, Y, and Z person. And so that was my biggest "combat story" that really resonates with me that I wanted to share here.

So Rob Disney was one of my other NCOs, another living legend in the career field, non-commissioned officer. And just every person, whether you're in the military or not, wants to be on a thriving team that is tackling a real problem and trying to make it better. And only way you can do that to perform at a high level is to get honest and open feedback, and holy crap is that hard. We implemented 360 feedback, which was once a month my six person PJ team, I knew these people back and forward, some of the bravest people I've ever known, jumped out of C-130s in the middle of the night for a HALO jump, underwater night dive, all kinds of harrowing stuff, but actually sitting down and the monthly feedback sessions of saying, "Hey, I'm the officer for this team. What's the one thing I really suck at? Let's go around the table and you guys tell me, and then what's the one thing I do well?" And it took me three months, and people created every single excuse to not show up to that or not to speak at that event, because providing that honest feedback is not something that's in our culture. And I'm not saying harsh criticism and just blasting people, but thoughtful saying, "Hey, you did this when you're supposed to do Y, what happened? We saw that, and that's how that's affecting us. We think you can do better and we're here to help you do better." That type of constructive feedback. But that was really hard. And so, after three months, finally got normalized, and more importantly, on the serve and leadership side, me and my NCO really agreed that this is what we were going to do and we're going to keep doing it for months until it worked. And finally when our junior enlisted started providing feedback for us, me and the NCO, about a couple things we needed to work on and there was definitely things I needed to work on. And then we got up out of that room, and for that next month we really focused on trying to fix that.

At the end of the day, if you have a performance gap on your own self, everyone's pretty smart and they know what that gap is, but they aren't either held accountable or they aren't empowered to fix that gap. And that was the biggest thing I saw. Once I started working on my own stuff, magically the rest of the team started fixing their stuff. So that was that first lesson. How just hard it is to provide 360 feedback, but if you can really get bought in at the end of the day, you take your own feedback and then you work on fixing your stuff that you got to work on and how that positively ripples throughout your community. But then the second thing, too, if leadership is the art of influence in a positive direction for a common goal, that concept of influence.

I had a couple airmen, I love them. They were great, but there were some areas they needed to work on and I just could not influence them because they did not look up to me. I was a younger officer. And I tried for months. "Hey, you cannot show up late to this thing. Hey, you've got to wear your uniform right." And time and time again they just kept not changing it. It seemed at this timepoint I'm going to use my authority. I'm going to start writing you up was the path I was going down. Finally had an NCO that sat me down and saying, "Hey, your job is to influence them. You don't have to influence them directly." And they just asked a simple question. It's like, "Hey, is there any people those two airmen that you're having issues with look up to?" And I'm like, "Oh yeah, here's like four or five of them." They're like, "Well, do you have any influence or relationship with any of those four or five people they look up to?" I'm like, "Oh heck yeah, of course." And so I sat down with the people they look up to and said, "Hey, I'm seeing this gap. Do you see that gap as well? Oh hey, can you have a conversation with that person?" And then lo and behold, when those conversations happened, between my airmen that were having some troubles and the NCOs they looked up to, magically those problems dissolved and magically got better. So just that concept where as a leader, you're supposed to own the team and own their actions and own mission accomplishment. But at the end of the day, there's multiple ways to slice that. And you never want to rely on authority as your only tool. You really want to focus on how you can positively influence your team. So those were my two big lessons learned in the military is the importance of 360 feedback and creating that environment, as well as that concept of influence doesn't have to be direct influence, it can be secondary influence to really impact the mission.

I mean the community's super small. At least when I was in, there was less than 300 officers in the five or 600 enlisted. And so hopefully that has grown since then, but end of the day, that was just from our predecessors that was earned through those quiet stories of rogue actions. We have Pitsenbarger from Vietnam, which saved multiple pilots, but more importantly an Army platoon was attacked behind enemy lines and went down on a hoist hook like 10 times in AK47 fire to get them and come back up. And you have those recurring stories where it's not a big community, but you live every single day that others may live. And people understand that trust that we say of we're coming to get you. No matter who you are, someone's coming. And being a small part of that community where people walked out and around me and set that high bar and you had that long history of decades of people dying or getting injured or whatever to making sure that we're going to come get you no matter what cultivates that respect. And at the end of the day allows a pilot to do their job. Hey, I'm going to do some really risky stuff, but I know at least if I get shot down the worst happens that someone's coming to get me and they're highly trained. And so it's awesome to be a part of that small community and that mission set, and so humbled, again, to serve with some really amazing folks.

So basically, we have our own little hooch, those little wooden structures, and that's when you know you've been in the country too long when you have like a three level palace all built out of plywood. That random, enlisted, awesome Air Force person has put together. Definitely, probably, a hazard there, but before you come onto your shift you get your threat Intel from what happened in the past hour, on the past 12 hours from your intel team. You come together with the Hh60 pilots and their four person crew, and obviously there's two aircraft. So there's eight of them. There's six of us. You got an officer, a comresc officer, a senior NCO, a junior NCO, and then about three airmen. And so each aircraft basically has two pilots, a gunner, a flight engineer, and then you have officer senior NCO airmen on lead aircraft, and then on the trail aircraft, you got a junior NCO and two airmen.

And so basically now you're waiting for the alert to go up and you're hanging out either in the TOC, which is the tactical operation center, and you have almost everything prepped on the aircraft. You have your weapon, you have your rucks, all that kind of stuff. And all you have on you, right next to the tactical operation center, is your radios and your tactical vest. And so, boom, the alarm goes off. You go in for that 32nd. Intel goes real quick, "Hey, this is what you got. You got your nine line, basically. Hey, this is how many people, this is the perceived threat. This is where you're going. Is it going to be IED, small arm fire," that kind of deal. What type of injury you're potentially going. And you're just trying to get to the aircraft as soon as possible on the helos to try to take off within five minutes. We talk about that golden hour. We learned a whole bunch from Iraq and Afghanistan, but long story short, if you can, especially if small arm fire or explosion, we have a traumatic amputation. If you can stop that bleed, slow that bleed down, and then get them to higher level care, which is us, and then get them that PJ team or medevac team, get them to the hospital within one hour, they're like five times more likely to survive. So that golden hour is really crucial, and that's why we're trying to shave off seconds.

And so, one of our first missions in Afghanistan was doing a lot of partners force missions. And so we got this call that literally just like two miles outside the wire of our base in Helmand Province a Afghan partner national force with one or two Marine Corps advisors, one of the MRAPs had gotten blown up. And these are like 14 ton vehicles. They're trying to mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles. It's a major armor. It got blown 15 feet off the road. So imagine the amount of ordinance that had to be in that IED, and flipped it over to its side. And so they called us out. And so we're spinning up and it's really bad that the worst thing, especially for helo pilots on night vision goggles, is they had that really fine talcum powder in Afghanistan. And it's basically called a brownout.

So just as you kind of come down, it kind of poofs up and you can't see anything. You can't see your orientation, and so obviously the helo pilot's all internal mechanisms to land the aircraft. And we had made the decision to put in our trail bird, so our junior NCO first, so we could stay above. We were worried about maybe a potential ambush there, and so we wanted the lead aircraft to direct things as needed because there was other aircraft in the area. So we wanted the lead pilot and the lead NCO and lead officer in the air, and so we put our junior NCO on the ground with these two airmen. And in the panic, they were supposed to clear out the IED field for us. They had not done it appropriately, and they told us like halfway through the PJ team walking through.

Luckily no one was injured, they got there. And like you just said, the MRAP had been protected, as in the hatch was fully closed, but that type of explosion where a 14 ton vehicle gets blown 15 feet off the road and gets flipped upside down, there was some pretty gruesome carnage on the inside. And so, the PJ NCO was telling us, "Holy crap, we need the other team on the ground," because they need some more medics there and some more stretchers. And so there was some alive folks. And so, we're pulling them out from those type of explosions. You have a lot of trauma to the lungs and the airway. And so our PJ team was fast at work stabilizing them. We're there.

Sadly when the MRAP had gotten blown up, we're pulling people out and getting them stabilized, and the partner forces, obviously they're seeing their buddies getting pulled out of these vehicles. They're trying to provide security to the couple people are still alive. There's a lot of amounts of distress during that time, but luckily we were able to get four of the Afghans stabilized and on the helicopter and back to the hospital within 25 minutes from detonation of the IED, and four people were able to survive that. But seeing that type of carnage of what a massive IED can do was always pretty harrowing, and especially in the middle of the night with low moon alum, and our helicopters not being able to see that great as you land in those type of environments.

So that was that one mission that really stuck with me. Just about what it was like to be on call and trying to get there as quick as possible, and letting a junior NCO lead the way and did a great job in that type of situation. And that's why that training is so crucial. "Hey junior NCO, you are 24 years old and you're going to go on this really harrowing environment leading two other airmen, which is their first deployment, and you got to direct this chaos once you get onto the ground with very little information and very little actual eyesight of what's going on around you." And he came through with colors and did a wonderful job of doing that. Where else in the world can a 24 year old person have that type of responsibility and successfully step up and achieve that type of stuff?

So I had the unique…and it's not always the same, but I went through indoctrination course, went through my two years of pipeline with several of these folks, and then just so happened that we all went to Moody Air Force Base together, which happened to be one of the larger PJ bases. Then I went through Green Team pre-deployment training, and then deployment with these. So it sounds crazy, but you could be in a dark room and you kind of like know by their breathing who they are, just because you spend that much time in dark circumstances. And probably shouldn't share this story, but I know you'll get a laugh out of this one. It's always my frame of reference of like, “Hey, no matter what I'm doing now, I'm like, it couldn't be that bad.” So everything is better than that moment. So this is my frame of reference I could bet everything against.

But we were in the pool, and one of the last events they have us do… so we do these underwaters. You have to swim 25 meters underwater. You have to swim 50 meters underwater. You have a weight belt on. You got a tread water. So your legs are exhausted and you're sitting in a pool, and the last thing they have you do is something called crossovers, or underovers. You have a weight belt on, you have fins on, you have a mask on, and you have like 10 or 15 people on each side of the pool, going widthwise not lengthwise, and you have to go down to the bottom. And one team swims at the bottom, holds their breath, the other team swims above them, but half the time you're getting kicked in the face, people are freaking out. You got to come back up and you get like two seconds rest. You got to come back again. You got to remember if you're high or low. People start doing stupid stuff, run to each other, all that kind of deal. And honestly the whole time you're just praying, I really hope someone quits or freaks out so you can get like a 10 second or 20 second breather, you know? At the top you're just praying. But when you come up, and remind, we were in these little brown t-shirts, and because it's the pool you don't want any drag so we have like the tightest little medium shirts on that we have, and we have black Speedos on. And we come up, and soon as you come up they tell us to get nut to butt, which is you're on the side of the pool gunnel and you got to get as close to your buddy as possible, and then the other buddy has to get close to you as possible again, you know? And we've been in this pool for like four or five hours, and the last thing you want is to cramp, and so we were just like down in the water every chance we get, you know? And so the guy behind me, Sean's his name, and he was like, "I got to pee." And I was like, "I don't care. I'm so exhausted." And so he starts peeing, and I'm like, we've been in a pool and it's like 65 degrees, 70 degrees. It's cold. You're cold after four hours. In back of my head, I'm like, "Hey, that actually kind of feels good. Oh my God." And now I'm like, oh my God, I have to pee. And so I tap my buddy in front of me, I'm like, "Dude, I got to pee." So he's like, "I don't care." And so I pee, and I pause there and have an out of body experience, and I'm like, oh my God, what have they done to us where this is a moment of bliss where someone else is freaking out so we actually get a 20 second break and grown men are peeing in the pool and it's a delightful experience. And so you have those type of experiences.

And I'll tell one last story talking about comradery. And so, again, I love the military. I love the academy, love the PJ teams, because you get people from all over on some aspects., I was a kid from the mountains of east Tennessee, and one of the guys on my team was from Boston, LaVoie, and had that Boston accent.

Fast forward to one of our last phases in our two year pipeline, it's called tactics. So you're going through different areas and moving with a team, shoot, move, communicate kind of deal. And the last exercise we got ambushed, and our team got scattered. And now for like two days you have buddy pairs, and you got to move at night and move in day to certain checkpoints, and you got to hide. You got people trying to find you, so kind of like search and evasion kind of stuff. And it's in the high mountains of New Mexico and it's like December, January, and it was awful. It was like the exact worst where you have like that sleet snow rain. It's like 33 degrees, you know? And so we put all of our sleeping bag and stuff in plastic bags to try to protect, but it just sleeted on us for like two days. And so at this point in time, everything that we have is soaking wet. You don't have anything that's dry. And now at night it drops down to the twenties. And so the first night, me and LaVoie are so wet that we just literally had to walk around in a circle for like 10 hours to keep our body heat enough so we didn't freeze to death.

And so then we had to move the whole next day. And so we get to our next checkpoint. That whole day, again, it sleeted, and so we were at the exact same situation as the night before. And I'm like, "Oh my God, we have to walk in a circle for another 10 hours." And I was like, "No." I'm like, "LaVoie, we're doing something else." And so this is literally my first order as an officer in the military. I'm like, "Hey man, the only way is for us to cuddle and have body heat. It's the only chance we can get some sleep tonight." And he was like, "No. No way, sir," in his Boston accident, "No way, no how." I'm like, "Let me rephrase this. We are cuddling. I will give you an option if you want to be big spoon or little spoon." And I will never tell you which one he chose, but let's say we did cuddle that night and we finally got some sleep, as you're cuddling in the high mountains of New Mexico.

And so that is the type of camaraderie that you're going on these deployments with. I mean, the brotherhood at that time was just everything to you. And that's why this is an enlisted guy, yes there's a rank structure, but you really had to lead on your values and there was no hiding. You couldn't be someone off duty that you were on duty and vice versa. And that was the biggest draw to that team in the PJ world and Special Operations overall was just how closely knit you were with the enlisted.

But actually, as we talk about transition, Ken, that was one of the biggest hurdles. It took me almost two years. The first hurdle was I did not think I could serve outside of uniform. I thought you had to wear a uniform to serve, and that really prevented me for like two years of holy crap, there's so much need and hurt and pain in this world that there's so many thousands of different ways. But since I was 10 years old, I was like “Military is service. That is the best type of service and that's the main way to serve.” And so it took me two years to finally pull my head out of my butt and realize there's other ways to serve.

And then the second thing, too, I spent a whole time reflecting. I was like, “Holy crap, I will never ever have a chance in my life to be nearly as connected to someone as I was on the PJ team, because I'm not going to go through this ridiculous training or through combat.” And yes, that is one way to make really close relationships, but I've spent the past decade realizing there's other ways to really create those other connections. And I know a lot of my veteran buddies, they miss the community, they miss the purpose, they understand their purpose, and they miss the growth that happened while they were in the military. And when you get out, you feel like you don't have that community anymore. You feel like you don't have that purpose sometimes. You don't feel like you're growing. And so that community was the major aspect that you and I, Ken, we talk about all the time, but that was a big hurdle I've taken the past decade is how do you recreate those relationships that you had in the military? And this sounds really silly and whatever, but it's being open and vulnerable about your faults. If you've ever been around a person that says, "Man, I did this and this is the hardest part of my life," you automatically feel connected with that. And it took me a lot long time to share my own faults, and me being able to do that with several other veterans that I didn't even know during the service, but afterwards, has allowed me to recreate some of those relationships like I had on the PJ team and really kind of recreate that pillar.

So I know I'm taking a left turn, but I love the comradery I had on the PJ team, but I got out and I had no tool or mechanism or understanding on how to get back. I always felt like I was looking back for two years of I can never serve again, I can never get back to that point, when I wasn't forward looking to seeing how can I recreate those same relationships with the people around me? There's a bunch of hurt around me, how can I go use those relationships to go serve people around me?

Yeah. You know, I've been in this space and so real quick, Ken knows that once I got out, served with Team Rubicon overseas for a while, that's how I met Ken, and then got into being a staffer in Congress. And that's what I worked on, transition day in and day out. And just writ large, again, amazing people in the DOD amazing people in the VA, but we have still the structural massive gap where DOD, rightly so, their mission is to send people to war. You have VA saying, "Hey, our job is healthcare." And then boom, you have a transitioning veteran. And 50% of veterans don't go into VA healthcare for a host of reasons. But now you have all these veterans that don't have community, don't have purpose, and don't have this concept of growth every day that they had in the military. And now only if they start having some pretty bad PTSD issues or addiction issues, then they're like, "Oh, they can get inside the VA healthcare system", which is like, holy crap, hey DOD, I'm not saying it's your primary mission, but it should have to be one of your missions, tertiary secondary mission, to make sure your veterans and your service members and their spouses have a successful transition. And I fully agree that should be a public private option, but when we are losing X amount of veterans, whether it's 17 or 22 each day, no one is benefiting from that. But more importantly, too, as you and I, Ken, fully agree, if we can equip our service members and their spouses and their kids as they transition to be leaders in their communities, they're going to do better. Their skill sets are going to be brought to the community, and that concept of second service.

And so, some of the most effective programs that's just starting to get build up that I think is fricking perfect, it's something called SkillBridge, which is six months before you get out. You and I both had terminal leave. You're kind of sitting there twiddling your thumbs, really not doing much with your last couple months, especially if you have a bunch of leave. And now SkillBridge is that great concept where six months as an active duty soldier, or airman, et cetera, you're able to go to another company, a private company, and do an internship and say, "Hey, is this something that you want to do? Awesome." And you're getting your DOD paycheck while you're getting this real world experience to see is this what you want in the private sector, and if so do you need more education, do you need more internships, et cetera.

And so DOD is getting a lot better in this space, but I think what we're still failing on, and we have a massive network out there, is you don't have many people in the world that know what veterans went through and also know the civilian world. And so the people that do know that are veterans that have made a successful transition, and I don't think we're tapping into their skillset. I know I would love to be on some random list that says, "Hey, if you're in Maryland or DC and you want to go into politics," which is what I'm in now, “I would love to be a mentor to any transitioning service member.”

We have this untapped potential, because that's the biggest thing is someone that knows where you're coming from and knows where you want to go to and can provide that kind of steady mentorship about how you're getting there. And hey, guess what? Transitioning service member, I was you four years ago. Here's a little bit of hope that you can get through any challenges that you have, whether PTSD, et cetera, and you can find another way to serve and expedite the learning loop. It took me two years to realize that, and I wish I had some more mentors on the other side of that before I even got out.

So I think the DOD's moving in the right direction, but without a doubt they have a role in empowering our service members. And we talk about it every single day, but our greatest generation, multiple reasons why that happened, but there was this societal expectation because so many people served that they were needed back home in their communities, and that's why so many of that expectation was met was so many service members stepped up in their communities, whether as mayors, whether as doctors, whatever, because of that expectation. And I think we can do a whole lot better as a society to wrap our veterans and the service members and families as they transition to say, "Hey, we need you back home and we thank you for your service. And now we need your service again back home."

Ken Harbaugh:

That was Capt. Tom Smith.

Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on twitter at Team_Harbaugh.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.

Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.

Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

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