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Evaluation tests mettle of future combat rescue officers

  • Published
  • By Capt. Gary Arasin
  • 347th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
Their faces grimaced with strain, and a mixture of sweat and pool water dripped from them onto the ground as the eight men pounded out pushups.

Even with the sun high overhead, the chill in the late-October air reminded them winter was coming to south Georgia.

The Airmen -- whittled down from a field of 20 -- were testing their mettle to see if they had what it takes to some day wear the maroon beret of a combat rescue officer.

“We are looking for men who are not only physically capable of leading, but are intelligent, articulate and capable of thinking on their feet,” said Maj. Scott Shepard, the CRO functional manager.

Each year, the Air Force conducts a two-phase combat rescue officer selection board in the fall and spring. Phase I is the application phase, designed to test an applicant’s attention to detail as well as his physical capabilities, the major said.

The CRO cadre evaluates each applicant’s physical fitness against the CRO/pararescue annual physical evaluation. That includes calisthenics, 3-mile run, 25-meter underwater swim and 1,500-meter surface swim.

Candidates should score the maximum -- or very close to it -- to be competitive Major Shepard said.

The team even evaluates the written applications for attention to detail, he said.

“If the candidate can’t follow basic instructions on a paper application, how can we put people’s lives in his hands?” Major Sheppard said.

Only the top 20 candidates -- 15 active duty and five reserve or Guard members -- pass the application board. They get an invitation to Moody for Phase II testing. This is a five-day, in-person evaluation, Major Shepard said.

Those chosen receive the other candidates’ contact information and reporting instructions. Phase II actually begins the moment candidates receive their information, he said.

“The team concept is a core concept to all elite forces,” the major said. “Candidates should take the time between notification and the start of Phase II to get to know each other -- to build the team basis essential to success in our training.”

Phase II is a gut check, Major Shepard said.

“Candidates can come to Phase II interested in becoming a CRO, but it won’t get them through the week.

“This process is about two things,” the major said. “Do the candidates know what they want to be, and how bad do they want to do it?”

The preparation candidates receive in Phase II is especially important for officer candidates because “washing out” of training is a career-ender, he said.

“Officers don’t get the option of retuning to a former career field or cross training,” the major said. “If they wash out of the pipeline, they are force shaped out of the Air Force.”

As soon as candidates hit Moody, the Phase II cadre starts them through the gauntlet. It starts with repeating the physical training test, this time evaluated to CRO standards.

If they fail, they go home.

The cadre ensures candidates understand the mental piece is just as critical as physical prowess. Candidates go through a psychological evaluation -- a written test and an interview -- with a survival, evasion, resistance and escape psychologist.

“The interview validates the written test to make sure the candidates have the right mental state of mind for our business,” Major Shepard said.

A lot of adjectives describe what is expected of combat rescue officers -- with smart, articulate and compassionate at the top of the list -- said Chief Master Sgt. Ryan Beckman, the pararescue career field manager.

“These guys are the leaders of our specialty,” the chief said. “They have to be able to articulate the capabilities and needs of the rescue community.

“We are looking for a guy who can stand up in front of a group of generals, articulate the needs of his men and be able to sell the capability of the Air Force’s search and rescue mission to the joint community,” the chief said.

However, the event that really weeds out candidates is the water confidence evaluation, Chief Beckman said.

“We test their abilities in the water and this is where we lose the most candidates,” he said.

Water confidence testing goes beyond just physical and mental capabilities, Chief Beckman said. It requires teamwork to succeed.

“We give them a buddy breathing exercise where they share a snorkel for several minutes with a partner while they are in simulated rough conditions,” the chief said. “They have to have the confidence to trust their partner.”

The last of the physical events test the candidates’ skills with both a day and night field exercise. On the last day, candidates face a board briefing and interview.

“After the (board) we tell the applicants whether they are selected or not,” Major Shepard said.

Active duty, Guard and reserve Airmen can submit applications to become a CRO. ROTC and U.S. Air Force Academy cadets can also compete. The spring board is designed to accommodate the academy’s spring break and the fall board is aimed at ROTC cadets, Major Shepard said.

“We are pushing to get more candidates at the commissioning source,” he said. “A full 20-year career gives us the chance to develop the rescue field’s leadership of tomorrow.”

Cadet Michael Vins, a 20-year-old junior with Air Force ROTC Detachment 10 at the University of Alabama, said he first got interested in the career field after reading an article in high school.

“My dad was in the Army and he always told me I should look into the Air Force,” he said. “This career field gives me the opportunity to be mission involved and able to save someone’s life.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Alaska Air National Guard Maj. Bryan Adrian. At 41 years old, he is old enough to be many of the candidates’ father. But after flying the C-130 Hercules for most of his career, he looked at CRO duty as a new challenge.

“I flew on some of the first missions in Operation Enduring Freedom and saw how squared away the special operations guys were,” Major Adrian said. “That motivated me.”