by Master Sgt. Russell Martin
451st Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
12/3/2012 - CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- Four
New York City firefighters, four Airmen, four friends, one team, one
HH-60 Pave Hawk -- one crew -- deployed together with the 26th
Expeditionary Rescue Squadron to Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, bringing a
unique flavor of New York Fire Departments with them.
Capt. Shaun Cullen, Capt. Tripp Zanetis, Tech. Sgt. Erick Pound and
Tech. Sgt. Jim Denniston are all members of the 101st Rescue Squadron,
New York Air National Guard, and they are all firefighters when not
activated. Cullen, the aircraft commander, is assigned to Engine 54, in
Midtown Manhattan; Zanetis, the copilot, is assigned to Ladder 11 in
Lower East Manhattan; Pound, the aerial gunner, is assigned to Engine 58
in Harlem; and Denniston, the flight engineer, is assigned to Engine
285 in Queens. Back home, they're all from a different "ladder" and a
different "engine" designation, but at Camp Bastion they share one,
"This is a first," said Zanetis. "An entire rescue crew made up of New
York City firefighters. We may have different jobs to do, but we all
know what each other are capable of and what to expect when we fly
Crews are on standby around-the-clock to provide personnel recovery
capabilities with medical evacuation operations in Afghanistan's
Regional Command Southwest. The team uses the HH-60, a highly modified
version of the Black Hawk helicopter, which features specialized rescue
mission equipment, including a hoist capable of lifting a 600-pound load
from a hover height of 200 feet. The Pave Hawk helicopter aircrews are
teamed with Air Force pararescuemen and combat rescue officers. Together
they are the only Defense Department elite combat forces specifically
organized, trained, equipped and postured to conduct full-spectrum
personnel recovery to include conventional and unconventional combat
As part of the 26th ERQS, the Airmen may serve many different functions,
but they are all part of one crew that's charged with responding to
air-evacuation calls for downed Airmen, injured servicemembers on
missions outside the wire, and even humanitarian missions to aid
civilians in the event they are involved in an improvised explosive
device explosion or have been injured during a small-arms conflict. In
the past 60 days since being deployed to Camp Bastion, they have more
than 50 missions together as a team, and they assisted in stabilizing
and extracting casualties close to double that amount.
Their relationship is forged in fire, and galvanized daily in the skies
above and the mountainous terrain below in Afghanistan. From the start,
they knew their experiences back home would bond them together
"From day one we gelled," said Denniston. "There's something different
about firefighters. You can walk into any given situation when you're
called up (on active duty) and meet another Airman that you have never
seen a day in your life and within minutes can say, 'What ladder are you
on? What department?'"
Their first day as a team required them to scramble for an alert in
Helmand Province. The crew, carrying three Guardian Angel pararescuemen,
negotiated the mountainous terrain to find their objective -- civilian
casualties who were the victim of an improvised explosive device strike.
Prior to landing, they had to quickly assess the situation before
possibly entering harm's way.
"We really didn't know what to expect, it was our first day," Cullen
said. "We went out in a two-ship to the site and our adrenaline started
pumping ... we knew there were casualties and we needed to get them out.
But were insurgents laying a trap for us? There have been scenarios
where they bait rescue forces in only to ambush them, and we needed to
quickly assess if this was one of those instances.
"After surveying the area and the terrain enough to where we felt
comfortable setting down, we began to dive at about 6,000
feet-per-minute, just slicing through the sky. It was amazing. And
because we, as a team, were able to coordinate so well, something that
seemed daunting went off without a hitch."
The crew admits that though their ride may be different, their attitude and drive to save lives remain the same.
"Here, we can fight our way in; we can fight our way out. We have a
different platform, but we'll use our tactics to try and save anyone
when called upon," Denniston said. "But just like at home, we're going
in. Whether it's a massive fire with people trapped on the 16th floor
back home, or a hot-zone here with IEDs and small-arms fire. We're going
to go in, and we're going to do everything in our power to ensure they
get out and have a chance."
At home, or in Afghanistan, they are the rescue. But here, they brought a
little bit of NYFD flavor to their unit. Though many Airmen assigned to
the 26th ERQS are from the 101st New York ANG, only a handful are
firefighters and they have a style all their own.
"We're deployed, so we know that we're not going to have the best
cooking, not that it's bad, but it's definitely not like it is at home,"
Cullen said. "So we take the same approach from time to time that we do
back home ... we get everyone together to chip in and buy some food and
then we'll all get together and cook it up for a big feast. It
definitely brings that sense of being in a fire unit back."
The crews work around-the-clock, on 12-hour shifts. Pedro 24 is on
standby for the morning missions from 1 a.m. to 1 p.m. And when they're
not in the air, on a mission, they're on alert waiting to respond at a
moment's notice. A 15-minute response time is the standard, but the
entire 26th ERQS has blown away that mark and cut their response time to
an average of seven to eight minutes, according to Zanetis. But until
they hear the call "Scramble, scramble, scramble," come across the loud
speaker they do what comes naturally, "bust each other's chops."
"Oh we're vicious," Pound said. "It's a lot like it is at home: 'no thin
skins.' We give each other a hard time but no one takes it to heart.
It's part of who we are and we know it's all in good fun, after all
we're family. But if the 'scramble,' is called, we get right down to
The team said no one wants to necessarily hear the call to scramble. The
call to scramble generally means that someone, somewhere is badly
injured. But a scramble and a save is a good day for Pedro 24.
"We don't like sitting around waiting for a call to come," said Cullen.
"But we also understand that if we're needed, then someone is having a
really bad day. Just like at home, if the bell sounds, it's an emergency
and we have to respond quickly to save lives. We will answer that bell,
that scramble-call without hesitation. That's our mission, and that's
what we love."
As part of the Air National Guard, units can determine how they want to
distribute deployment length. They have the option of deploying for 60
days or the full 120 days. While most of the crew will stay on for the
full 120, Denniston, who was newly married in May, will be redeploying
in the coming weeks to backfill an Active Guard/Reserve position at the
101st RQS back in New York, breaking up the all-NYFD firefighter team.
"I'd stay if I could, but they needed a body back home and since I don't
want to be divorced already, I have to go," Denniston laughed. "But
they've already anointed me the man in-charge of putting together the
welcome-home party for when they join me in a couple months. "