The Other Side of Search and Rescue
When most hear the term SAR (Search and Rescue), they think of a group in brightly coloured jackets surrounding a lost hiker or a basket being raised from a sinking boat. For many this is mostly true, but SAR has a darker side that people outside of the community don’t like to talk about.
What happens when the rescue team doesn’t get there in time?
Anyone involved in a SAR operation will tell you they will go to extraordinary lengths to achieve their goal, find and bring the people back safely. To press this point home, The Canadian Forces Search and Rescue Technician’s motto is “So others may live”. These highly trained and motivated people are the pinnacle of SAR. We see or hear time and time again about a snow enthusiast or hiker who has gone off trail out in the back country, a boat that took to sea with less than favorable weather or a pilot that though they could beat the storm. They become the subject of a multi-man hour operation and a 15 second news clip and that’s the end of it.
Or is it?
Every time a SAR team is sent out, be it full timers like CF SAR Techs or volunteers, there is a chance the rescue may become a recovery.
It doesn’t matter how many books you have read or classes you have sat through, nothing can fully prepare you for this. I know what you are thinking, “What the hell does this guy know?” The answer is probably not much. But, I would like to share my story with you.
I joined the Canadian Forces in 1988 at 17 and like most thought I was ten feet tall and bullet proof. At 22 I deployed to the former Yugoslavia and saw my first dead body. I went to Bosnia twice and did four tours in Afghanistan.
I have tasted the blood in the air while searching a torture house, seen what an Anti-tank mine does to a person and the effects of a point blank AK-47 ambush. I can’t say I have lost count of how many of my friends have been killed, I know the number.
I don’t mention this to make you think I am some badass high-speed steely eyed dealer of death, I’m not. I’m just a regular guy with different experiences behind me.
In 2009, I was deployed to Afghanistan with a Tactical Helicopter Squadron. It was here that a rescue became a recovery for my crew.
We were dispatched to assist troops in contact with Taliban forces. The transit to the area was only 20 minutes away, but that is a long time in a gun fight. Moments before we arrived, the Taliban slipped away leaving one soldier dead.
The ground force commander was eager to pursue the Taliban and requested we transport his causality back. We went in to do the pick up while a second helicopter provided cover. Upon lifting off a second set of helicopters came on scene and we departed to the airfield. It was at this point our call sign changed from Shakedown to Angel Flight. This new call sign gave us priority clearance through the airspace and a straight in approach to the hospital.
During the trip back I sat behind my gun and talked to the fallen soldier laying on the floor to my right. He wasn’t a friend or even from my country, yet here I was having a one way conversation like I had known him for years. Crappy food and hot, female Dutch soldiers were just a few of the things I talked to him about. I told him I would see him again just before he flew home to his family. I had forgotten my mic was set to VOX and was voice activated the whole time, so the rest of the crew heard everything I was saying. The only time any of them spoke was just prior to landing and it was flight related. Upon landing at the hospital, I unstrapped him and four of his countrymen draped his body in their national flag. As they carried him to an awaiting truck I waved goodbye. I have no idea why I did this even to this day. I didn’t know his name. When we landed back in our normal spot and had shut down, our Flight Engineer came around to my side and simply said “That was nice”.
For all my time traveling to other countries and seeing so many things, this one short flight still stands out to be the worst of the lot. I can’t help wonder if we had just been quicker, maybe that angel flight wouldn’t have happened.
I know I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to dwell on these kinds of things, but we go into “rescue” situations thinking or just hoping everything will be fine. It’s when things go bad we experience the darker side of search and rescue.