CPT Shaun Cullen
U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard
My military career has afforded me many great opportunities to be a tangible part in the lives of others on both the military and civilian sides of rescue and personnel recovery missions.
As far as the deployed mission, I have taken part in the rescue of more than one hundred U.S. Military and coalition forces, many of whom suffered injuries such as gunshot wounds and injuries sustained from Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blasts. Our job in Combat Rescue casualty evacuation is to fly out to the active combat engagement, in many cases under enemy fire, and pick up injured soldiers, sailors and Marines in order to get them from the battlefield to the trauma hospital so that they can return home to their families with honor.
During my last deployment, my home in Babylon, New York was destroyed as a result of damages sustained from Superstorm Sandy. This was less than two months into the deployment and my squadron commander confronted me with the choice to either stay in Afghanistan or go home to deal with the aftermath. I opted to stay and continue flying rescue missions in the Helmand River Valley, supporting U.S. Marines and British forces fighting in an area considered to be one of the last Taliban strongholds. On one such mission, my crew and I landed in an Afghani walled compound to execute the rescue of a soldier who had been shot multiple times. While in the zone awaiting the pararescue-men (PJs) who had disembarked the helicopter to retrieve the soldier, enemy transmissions were intercepted. The transmissions stated that they had our exact location and were setting up to shoot us down with RPGs once we took off. My crew and I, all FDNY members, made the decision to remain in the zone and wait for the PJs to return with the patient rather than takeoff to assume a defensive position. We were in the middle of an active firefight and in a vulnerable state with a known enemy seeking to kill us. As a crew, we quickly surmised a plan to give ourselves the best chance to defend our position and complete the mission. While this was going on, our formation lead helicopter and British Apache helicopters were positioning themselves to protect us once we took off out of the compound. When the PJs returned with the patient we took off out of the zone, weapons poised trying to remain as low as possible in order to give the enemy a tough angle for a successful shot. Simultaneously, the other helicopters released a barrage of suppressive fire upon the enemy. The ground was shaking and rounds were exploding only meters from our position. We were able to accelerate out of the zone, flying as low as possible until we had the speed necessary for a rapid climb to a safer altitude outside the weapons engagement zone of the enemy. We completed the mission and flew many more missions under similar conditions. It was a great deployment for our squadron and for me, as this was my first command of the helicopter and my crew.
During my 2008/2009 deployment, I was in a helicopter crash in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. It was my second mission in combat as a young copilot. The helicopter went down in a blizzard, trying to fly through the mountains to rescue a soldier. We hit the side of a mountain, rolled down the mountain and finished upside down on fire and on the side of a hut in a village in enemy territory. Due to the snowstorm, we were unable to be rescued by air assets and so we had to spend the night climbing to high terrain in order to avoid being captured by Taliban forces. We spent the night evading until ground forces were able to come in the next morning to secure the village. We then descended through two-and-a-half feet of snow down the mountain to the QRF team charged with bringing us back to safety. My crew and I remained in theatre for five more months completing a multitude of dangerous rescue missions. This was the same day as the U.S. Airways crash in the Hudson River. All those in both crashes survived!
On the civilian side, I have taken part in missions ranging from wildfire support, hurricane rescue and flood victim rescue. I have also provided NASA astronaut rescue support for the final "Atlantis" shuttle launch in Cape Canaveral in May of 2010. Being read into the NASA program and briefing astronauts on crash and abort rescue procedures as well as being present at the launch facility for the takeoff was amazing.
At this time, I am back to working with the FDNY and as member of the New York Air National Guard (106th Rescue Wing). I am currently living with my parents, as I am still dislocated from my home due to Sandy. I am in the process of trying to secure the funds needed to rebuild my home and get back to normal life.