The true meaning of Heroism, part IV
Editor's note: Click the links for parts I, II, and III.
“He was shot but he continued to treat 10 wounded patients...
They owe him their lives. The only reason they came home was because of Jason Cunningham.”
After nearly four years in the Navy, Cunningham decided to take a chance on his career, and to strive for something better. After taking the Navy SEAL Physical Fitness Test - the first step in the long road to becoming one of the Navy's elite commandos - Cunningham changed direction once again, and set his sights on joining an elite Air Force fraternity known as Pararescuemen. The USAF has barely 300 of these operators whose job is to deploy by any means necessary - sea, air, or land - to rescue downed aircrew members and injured special operators. Pararescuemen, also known as "PJs," are trained skydivers and scuba divers, are survival specialists, and are highly trained emergency medical and rescue technicians. The two-year "pipeline" which Pararescue trainees complete is both grueling and intensive, and has a washout rate of well over 60% (some articles have said 90%).
Cunningham began Pararescue training in 1999, and in 2000, while at the Special Forces Combat Diver Qualification Course in Key West, FL, was the subject of an Airman magazine feature on the PJ pipeline. In 2001, after graduating from the seven required schools - the 10-week Pararescue selection course, the aforementioned combat diver course, Army airborne school, the Special Forces Military Freefall parachuting course, Air Force SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training, the six month Special Operations Combat Medic Training Course, and the 20-week Pararescue School - and earning the maroon beret of the Air Force Pararescueman, Cunningham was assigned to the 38th Rescue Squadron at Moody AFB, GA.
Only eight months after completing his training, Cunningham deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The PJs there were based in an air operations building which also housed a forward surgical team - a training opportunity which he almost immediately took advantage of.
"Every time we had a casualty event [Cunningham] was always the first one here offering to help," said Dr. (Maj.) Brian Burlingame, the surgical unit's commander. "His enthusiasm was just genuine to the core, which was what endeared him to us. He was like a little brother."
Besides honing his personal medical skills, Cunningham's involvement with the surgeons down the hall at Bagram directly resulted in a development which would save the lives of American soldiers in the very near future: the allowing of PJs to carry whole blood into combat as a part of their medical loadout. This was a controversial step, Dr. Burlingame told the Air Force Times, because:
"Blood is an FDA-controlled substance. It's very, very regulated." Special training, not to mention lots of paperwork, is required before medics are considered qualified to administer blood in the field. After Cunningham and Burlingame started talking, all the pararescuers here took the classes and filled out the paperwork.Perhaps the most famous battle of Operation Enduring Freedom, the battle of “Roberts Ridge” (a subset of Operation Anaconda which saw a loss of life unprecedented in the special operations community since Mogadishu in 1993), was Cunningham’s first – and last – taste of combat. After Navy SEAL Neil Roberts fell out of an MH-47 Chinook helicopter which took heavy fire while attempting to insert a SEAL team onto a hilltop to overwatch the Anaconda battlefield, and a second helicopter had deposited the remainder of Roberts’s squad and an Air Force combat controller (Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, whose actions during the battle cost him his life but earned him a posthumous Air Force Cross) on the hilltop in an attempt to rescue the fallen sailor, whom Predator UAV footage had shown being captured by Taliban fighters, a quick reaction force (QRF) composed mainly of a squad of Army Rangers was launched to reinforce the outmanned and outgunned Americans who had quickly become pinned down in an exposed position.
"We then pushed blood forward with [Cunningham's] group," Burlingame said.
As it approached the landing zone, the QRF helicopter came under such significant ground fire that it was forced to make a crash landing in an exposed area of the hilltop, only 100 meters from a fortified enemy position. The soldiers on board immediately took fire, and casualties began to mount instantly.
Cunningham worked feverishly to treat the wounded Rangers and aviators, doing so in the back of the downed Chinook helicopter until it caught fire and became the target of increasingly accurate enemy mortar fire. Making the decision to move his patients, Cunningham crossed the line of fire seven separate times while successfully transporting them to higher ground – then was forced to move them twice more to avoid the enemy fire raining down on their static, vulnerable casualty collection points. Finally, just after midnight, after so much success defying enemy fire to move and treat his patients, Cunningham’s luck ran out, and he was shot in the abdomen just below his protective vest. According to the Air Force Times, “Cunningham must have known he was in serious trouble. But despite his worsening condition, he continued to treat patients and advise others on how to care for the critically wounded. One of the two blood packs he had brought [and which he was directly responsible for PJs being able to carry] saved a badly wounded Ranger. The medics gave the other packet to Cunningham himself, whose life was slowly flowing out in a red stream onto the white snow.”
Nearly twenty hours after suffering serious internal injuries, and only 90 minutes before the area became cold enough for rescue helicopters to arrive and evacuate the wounded fighters, Cunningham succumbed to his wounds. He had treated patients to the end, and was credited afterward with having almost single-handedly made sure that only seven men died on Roberts' Ridge rather than seventeen – though such dedication and seriousness of purpose ended up costing him his own life. Every wounded man he treated survived the encounter, and for his extraordinary heroism and gallant action in living the Pararescue motto (“That Others May Live”), he was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, the second-highest award that the USAF offers. According to the citation, “As a result of [Cunningham’s] extraordinary heroism, his team returned 10 seriously wounded personnel to life-saving medical care.”
“He was right in the thick of it, doing it right up to the end,” said a fellow Pararescueman. “Jason was right where every PJ wants to be. He was where guys needed him, and he was saving lives.”
It wasn't his death that made him a hero, said his wife Theresa – it was the way he lived. "There was nothing that anyone will ever say about him that I didn't know,” she said. “He was heroic day to day. I used to say he's my hero and that was his favorite thing.”
Buried in Arlington cemetery among the true heroes who are his brothers in immortality, Cunningham’s memory will not soon be forgotten, by his Air Force comrades, by the men who are alive today thanks to his actions, or by the loving family he left behind.
“The fact is he knew we were happy,” said Theresa. “The last things we said to each other were, 'I love you.' I think the story was complete in a way.”
Godspeed, Jason. You were a great man in life and in death, and are a true example to us all.
It is my duty as a Pararescueman to save life and to aid the injured. I will be prepared at all times to perform my assigned duties quickly and efficiently, placing these duties before personal desires and comforts. These things I do, "That Others May Live."
-Pararescue Creed and Code of the Air Rescueman