By Marlena Hartz: Freedom Newspapers
Skinny tubes of blue neon their only source of light, John’s rescuers insert an air tube into his mouth.
The sounds of war are deafening: Gunfire ricochets, tanks rumble.
But John’s saviors are not on a battlefield. Though his chest moves up and down and his eyes blink, he is not alive.
He is a dummy, albeit with eerily real features. The room — stocked with equipment that can replicate bone-chilling cold and stifling heat — simulates real conditions faced by Air Force Special Operations pararescuers.
“The Air Force is moving towards simulation more and more,” said Master Sgt. Daniel Arnold, an instructor at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
Technically, John is simply one of two Human Patient Simulators at Hurlburt, bestowed by pararescuers with a nickname.
He resides in the Tactical Operations Medical Skills Lab at Hurlburt, a small room where members of the Air Force Special Operations Forces Medical Element — pararescuers, or PJs, independent duty physicians, nurses, flight surgeons and physicians assistants – obtain hands-on practice.
“We try to bring it to the real world,” Arnold said.
The lab opened at Hurlburt Field about a year ago. Soon-to-be tenants of Cannon Air Force Base, members of the Air Force 16th Special Operations Wing want to build another TOMS lab at Cannon.
“Our biggest problem is getting the money,” said Arnold, who yens for a larger lab with additional real-life features, such as sand.
The Hurlburt lab cost $1 million to build, and the fortified dummies generally run about $200,000 a piece, Arnold said.
But the training, according to Arnold, is priceless.
The dummies salivate, bleed, breathe. Their pupils dilate, their tongues swell and their lungs collapse. If a student injects too much or too little medicine into the fake IV that protrudes from the fleshy wrist of a dummy, the dummy dies, the heart monitor attached to it flat lines.
Fake vials of medicine are piled on a shelf, and a machine identifies the type and dose administered by a bar code.
“This is the best training there is for medics in the field,” said Tech. Sgt. Jarod Schultz.
“Of course, there is nothing that can replace being out in the field, with your adrenaline running,” said Schultz, a West Virginia native who has saved the lives of hundreds during two tours of duty in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq.
“It gets in their blood,” Air Force Special Operations Command public information officer Maj. Erin Dick said.
Air Force Special Operations pararescuers, or PJs, are deployed primarily to provide medical aid and rescue for fellow U.S. Special Operations Forces, such as Air Force Commandos, Navy SEALs or Army Rangers.
“This is one of the most rewarding jobs you can get,” Schultz said.
“You are saving lives, not taking them.”
Tech. Sgt. Paul Orse was a Marine before he left that field of service to become an Air Force Special Operations PJ. He has been a pararescuer for about 20 years.
“Going from killing someone to saving their lives … there’s a better feeling to that,” said Orse, reminiscent of Buzz Lightyear from “Toy Story” with humility, his hair the typical military buzz cut, the span of his shoulders comparable to that of a motor vehicle.
Orse, too, has been to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times. But he doesn’t rush to tell war stories, and instead, pegs the time he rescued an adolescent boy from the deserts of New Mexico as his most vaulted moment as a pararescuer.
Pararescuers in choppers found the boy shadowed under a cliff two days after he wandered away from home on his father’s ranch, near Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, where Orse was stationed at the time.
“He was dehydrated and bitten all over by ants. That was the extent of his injuries,” said Orse, who searched for the boy in a box pattern, starting with areas the boy frequented.
A bulk of a pararescuer’s job involves planning the minute details of rescues. Rescuers sometimes work alone or in teams, plucking wounded soldiers from cliff tops behind enemy lines or freeing captured Americans from foreign forces.
On home soil, they aid in disaster rescue, and saved 11,000 people from the deluge following Hurricane Katrina, AFSOC officials said.