An Air Force combat rescue officer with the 46th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron takes part in a 2012 training mission near Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The 46th and 59th EQRS have pulled out of Kandahar. (Staff Sgt. Clay Lancaster / Air Force)
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After 11 years in which combat rescue squadrons based at Kandahar Airfield evacuated 1,800 wounded and spent 97,000 hours on alert, the last rescue squadrons to deploy there are moving out.
The departure of the 46th and 59th Expeditionary Rescue Squadrons leaves two combat rescue squadrons in Afghanistan: Camp Bastion and Bagram Airfield.
The 46th ERQS, which was stood up in September 2010, has been inactivated because the Afghan security forces are taking a greater role in the fight against the Taliban, said squadron commander Maj. Joseph Barnard.
During the squadron's time in Afghanistan, one of its jobs was to help the Army evacuate wounded troops under fire, Barnard said. But as the Afghans have taken more of a lead role, the number of such missions has declined.
"We don't have enough missions to keep the numbers of pararescuemen and combat rescue officers here," he said.
The squadron itself was unique because it was the first to be led by "Guardian Angels," who go on the ground to retrieve wounded troops or downed pilots, instead of the people who fly rescue aircraft, Barnard said.
Now that U.S. forces are taking more of an advisory role, it's proper for the Air Force to downsize its rescue squadron capabilities in Afghanistan, Barnard said.
"It's the normal process of retrograde, going into 2014, as the president has laid out, to where the country is supporting itself," he said.
Life in Afghanistan meant being "ever ready" to go into difficult situations, whenever the squadron was called to evacuate NATO troops on the battlefield, Barnard said.
"We went and got people from all over the place," he said. "It didn't matter what the situation was. They used their complete skills. Our guys were under fire — moving, shooting, communicating to go get a patient."
Members of the squadron also had to suppress enemy fire, call in airstrikes and recover the remains of troops killed in helicopter crashes in difficult-to-reach places, Barnard said.
The unit personnel from the 46th are being absorbed into another rescue squadron at Camp Bastion.
During its recent deployment to Afghanistan, the 59th EQRS flew more than 40 combat missions, saved 32 U.S., NATO and Afghan troops and evacuated 10 additional people with less severe injuries, said the squadron's commander, Lt. Col. Andy Smith.
On one mission, the rescue squadron was able to rescue three wounded troops and defend a platoon under fire, Smith said.
"We were able to get into the hot LZ [landing zoning] twice to deploy our Guardian Angel team, which is made up of combat rescue officers and pararescuemen, and after we got them in, we protected the team on the ground by suppressing the threat with our .50-caliber weapon systems, and we went back into the hot LZ to get everybody out," he said.
The combination of a rescue squadron's aircraft, combat rescue officers and pararescuemen make a rescue squadron "the absolute best capability that you have for that mission," Smith said.
"Because we all train together, we're stationed together, we're organized together — in separate squadrons — but we deploy together routinely," he said.
"I get calls from commanders of units saying, ‘Hey, thank you for going in and getting the guys out under hairy situations,'" Smith said. "They're always very, very thankful."
One challenge facing rescue squadrons is keeping their aging aircraft flying, he said.
"When I came into this business 13 years ago, they were relatively low-time aircraft, but they are getting older, so our maintenance guys have to work a lot harder," Smith said.
Smith has deployed to Afghanistan five times, based mostly out of Kandahar.
"Even though the Kandahar contingent has been the oldest one, the most longstanding location where we've done personnel recovery alert, the fact that we have a squadron at Bastion and a squadron at Bagram still gives us personnel recovery coverage throughout the entire AOR," he said.