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Pararescue, Mountain Rescue, Ocean Rescue: interview with Scott Light

Updated: Sep 5, 2019

January 2018

Scott light sitting on his pack during a rest stop on the South Sister in Central Oregon. In the background are other mountains in the Cascade Range and a view of the valley below.
Scott Light climbing the Three Sisters in Central Oregon

Have you heard all the arguments for going to college that you ever want to hear? Take a look at what Scott Light did instead. His many careers led him to college eventually, but by the time he decided to pursue a degree, he knew very well what he wanted to do, and he knew why. That made his path clear. His classes were not easy, but he had a reason to stick with them. He had experience and a goal.

Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Scott Light has a laugh that can be heard for long distances. And Scott laughs a lot. For him, life is to be enjoyed, savored. When he watches his daughter play, he has a light in his eyes and a smile that lets you realize he thinks she is a wonder. His family is a strong foundation, as are his friendships. In past years, Scott found great joy in being on the front lines, rescuing people in dangerous situations. These days, Scott Light serves the people of Aberdeen, Washington who are in need of his laugh and his medical knowledge.

Scott Light served in two Gulf Wars, Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, in Angola rescue and resettlement of refugees, and in operations in Turkey between the Gulf Wars. He participated in civilian rescues in the Cascade Mountains and rescues in the Pacific Ocean. Scott now serves rural Southwestern Washington as a much needed physician assistant.

Scott grew up in Northeast Portland, Oregon and joined the Air Force soon after he graduated from Grant High School. From 1988 to 98 he served in the Air Force as a Combat Controller and then retrained in Pararescue for the second half of his career.


SCOTT: Combat Controllers do air traffic control and terminal attack control in combat. We directed air support. We were specialists at controlling air assets in combat, and we were communications experts. We used radios, laser pointers, navigational aids, and GPS. These days, those tools are much more technically advanced than they were when I was using them.

My initial training was in Operation Location H (aka the OL-H or OL-Hell) – eight weeks at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. There were 90 of us in training to begin with. Nine graduated. Four of those were Combat Control trainees and five were Pararescue trainees. The nine of us went on to scuba school Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. We did survival training near Spokane, static line and free-fall parachute training in Fort Benning and Fort Bragg, and water survival in Florida. After that, I went on to Air Traffic Control School and Combat Control School. The Pararescue trainees went on to medical training and Pararescue School.

Ten years later, I only had to do the last half of that training to become a Pararescueman or PJ as we call ourselves. For about a thirteen year period, all of that initial training was combined for both career fields. That is no longer the case.

During the Persian Gulf War, two other guys and I were assigned to the First Infantry Division (Army), and we went up through Iraq and into Kuwait. We first landed in Saudi Arabia and went through Iraq all the way to Kuwait. In Kuwait, we were camped near those oil fires everyone saw on TV.

The roads were washed out. Supplies were short. So we set up air drops to resupply and turned roads into landing zones for cargo aircraft. The movie and book, Jar Head, was a pretty good depiction of what it was like.

After the Gulf War, I was in Germany for three years. During that time, I deployed to Angola for Operation Provide Transition. That was a UN mission to get people back to their home of record so they could vote in the first democratic vote in Angola.

Angola was a proxy war of the Cold War – the CIA-backed Unita rebels against the Communist-backed government of Angola. As the Berlin Wall came down, many of these wars ended. We flew people – refugees – back to Luanda, and we delivered aide and food. Angola was characteristic of similar situations then and now in other places in Africa – the internal wars that are going on today there. Searching for Enemies: A CIA Story is an excellent book about Angola, though I believe it is out of print.

We did a lot of training in Germany and took many trips to Spain and Italy while I was there. After that, I spent four years back in North Carolina. That's where I met my wife, Aries, who lived in Virginia Beach at the time.

After ten years, I left active duty and came home to Portland. I joined the Air Force Reserves, 304th Rescue Squadron in Portland, and became a Pararescueman. The unit first sent me to become a nationally registered Paramedic through a program in Tidewater, Virginia. I then went to Pararescue School in New Mexico where there was also a large block of medical instruction. My medical training in pararescue focused on combat casualty care.

Pararescuemen, or PJs, are all men. Combat Control and Pararescue are the two jobs in the Air Force that women are not in because of the proximity to ground combat. Army Infantry units don’t have women in them either. Women are very helpful in combat areas, but actual combat units have very heavy gear. And the casualty rate in special operations forces such as Combat Control and Pararescue is much higher than in the rest of the military.

There are differences between combat casualty care and ordinary emergency care. You’re operating in emergency situations and with different types of wounds. Statistically speaking, combat injuries don’t necessarily follow the same mortality curve that civilian trauma does. That takes slightly different medical skills.

In our Air Force Reserves unit, you do a lot of civilian rescue and the remoteness of many of those missions makes them, in a way, similar to combat casualty care. The patient usually has been injured for a longer time and will not get to a hospital soon. The way you manage people in such situations matters. For example, in cases where people are very cold, one of the major differences is that you don’t want to exchange cold blood from the extremities to the core. In cases of hypothermia, pushing cold blood toward the heart is dangerous. In the hospital, this can be managed differently.

During the second Iraq War, I was a pararescueman. I had begun going to college at Mont Hood Community College, but, I was deployed several times while trying to finish my associates or "transfer" degree. I deployed to Turkey twice and to the Olympic Games in Utah while going to Mount Hood Community College. Later, I would deploy to Iraq and finally to Afghanistan prior to retirement.

When I was home, the Air Force Reserves was a good part-time job where I worked two or three days a week and could go to school the other days. Aries had a shop on Hawthorne at the time. We bought and renovated an older home in Portland.

When our PJs were deployed to Turkey in 2000 and 2001, it was for Operation Northern Watch. Most people don’t realize that we never stopped dropping bombs on Iraq after the first Gulf war. We came in from a Turkish Air Base in Diyarbakir and would fly to the Iraqi border to pull alert while the British and American Air Force delivered ordinance to destroy or suppress the Iraqi air defenses, airplanes and radar installations – anything deemed a threat. It was a two or three hour flight back to Diyarbakir.

We were protecting Kurds from Iraqis by making sure Iraq couldn’t threaten them with their Air Force, and this included destroying any threats to our air assts. This is probably similar to the recent operations over Libya; lots of things end up being fair game when you include a mandate to protect your own air assts as well as destroy theirs.

The pararescue job was to pick a pilot up if shot down. During that time, we never had to do that, but we had to be ready with all you might need for combat rescue of the injured. During that time we were nearby and listened to the air war on our satellite radio, waiting for the code word to tell us if we were needed or if we could go back to base.

Diyarbakir is a beautiful city. It is walled and is also the watermelon capital of Turkey. What we did in those years helped my unit remain ready and trained for all kinds of emergencies.

When we were at home, we were able to carry out many rescue operations in the Northwest in the Cascades and at sea. Our goal is to be able to rescue anyone, in any circumstances, anywhere in the world. A lot of the world is water. Fear of water is a big reason people "wash out" during that early training. People don’t like to be held under water.

Pararescue units support rescue operations for NASA using a C130 Fixed Wing Air Craft with an inflatable boat – the Zodiac F470 which is a military version of that boat. Special operations forces typically drop that thing out of the plane already inflated. That was awkward for rescue forces that might need the aircraft for a variety of rescue contingencies. We needed a way to be able to drop an uninflated boat and then re-inflate it.

Now, we have a small package with a deflated boat and a Mars Submersible Engine. You deploy it with a static line and a round parachute. The pararescuemen then follow the package out with a free-fall parachute, or a static-line parachute. The free fall parachute is more accurate, but you need to do that from a bit higher altitude, while you can take the less accurate static-line technique down to lower altitudes to get under poor weather.

The package has lights. This allows you to jump, land in the water and find the boat in the dark. Then you inflate the boat, pump the water out of the engine and in as little as seven minutes you’re underway. That’s called a RAMZ package (rigging alternate method zodiac).

In the summer of 2000 or 2001 we were training with a crew from Kirtland Air Force Base. Our wing got a call to rescue a fellow whose sailboat de-masted and hit him while he was en route from California to Hawaii. It hit the guy in the back. The U.S. Coast Guard used his rescue beacon system (a satellite system) to let nearby vessels know what happened. The U.S. ship Chevron Washington took him on board. We flew with the Kirtland guys eleven hundred miles toward Hawaii and made a 3,500 foot free-fall parachute jump with the RAMZ package and two barrels of extra equipment. When we found and flew over the vessel, the C-130 pilot told the Jump Master, 'You have thirty minutes before we have to head back to the U.S. west coast, or we will run out of gas.' We deployed on the next pass over the vessel. It was a night jump in five to six foot seas.

When we boarded the ship and got to him, the patient had no breath sounds on the left. He was breathing rapidly, and his blood oxygen level was low. We knew then that he had blood or air in the pleural space – the air space between the lung and the lining sac for the lung. One of the guys used needle decompression to try to treat the suspected pneumothorax, but we didn’t get a response. We then placed a chest tube, a surgical technique normally performed exclusively by physicians in hospitals. Air and blood came out. He was breathing easier and his pulse oxygenation improved.

He was our critical care patient for 40 hours before we could get him back to a hospital. A helicopter came out to the 600 mile mark and hoisted off one of our PJs and the patient. The helicopter was at the limit of its range. The rest of us rode in on the Chevron.

A Rescue C130 Fixed Wing air plane can refuel a helicopter. You saw that if you saw the movie or read the book A Perfect Storm. Of course, doing that in a storm is very dangerous. There are two main Air Force rescue flying tools: the HH60 which is a helicopter (a modified Black Hawk) and the HC130 Fixed Wing plane.

When we were in Oregon, we performed a number of mountain rescues that I was privileged to serve on -- several on Mount Hood. There was a guy with a fractured hip that we took off Mount Hood, another one off of the Sisters, and a successful mission for two guys who were seriously injured on Mount Washington. Later, one of the guys from the Mt. Washington mission wrote an article for Climbing magazine about all they went through before we came. Two days before we even knew about them their lead climber fell and ripped the other off the mountain. They were both lying there, sure they were dying, until a Lane County rescue group, out for a day in the mountains, happened to find them.

We worked a lot with Portland Mountain Rescue. Very professional volunteers and well trained.

Another group we worked with was the Crag Rats. They are out of the Columbia River town of Hood River. You absolutely have to live in Hood River to be a member. Those guys are top notch climbers and a skiing elite.

One day, we got a call to come to Mount Hood with two of our helicopters. It was climbing season and there had been a big accident on the south side of the mountain. Some climbers on the mountain had fallen and knocked others into a crevasse. When we arrived, I was with the second Air Force helicopter, and we landed in the parking lot below Timberline Lodge. The other unit up there was the Army National Guard out of Salem.

Our first helicopter was being flown by a really good pilot. A week earlier, he had flown a mission on the north side of the mountain.

On Mount Hood, he hovered the helicopter near the Hog’s Back.

Mount Hood from the south looking at Crater Rock (center of snow field) with the line of the Hog’s Back ridge running uphill from Crater Rock. Just below the blue shadow of Crater Rock is darker shadow that is the right edge of the large crevasse. (Photo by Scott Light)

Interviewer: The Hog’s Back is a prominent glacial ridge running vertically up to the south side of Mount Hood toward the summit. Winter winds deposit the snow onto the ridge running from Crater Rock up towards the Chute and the summit. The Hog’s Back is split horizontally by a large crevasse which forms near the top of a glacier).

Scott: That aircraft had lowered a line to hoist survivors to the helicopter. One of our guys was down below packaging the patient and getting ready to attach the line to the Stokes (litter).

The Hog’s Back has wind coming from both directions at various times. That is why it is a ridge shape that you can see on the mountain. At that altitude, you can lose power depending on the direction of the wind. The wind changed. The man below saw that the helicopter was low. He felt something was wrong. He had enough play in the cable to disconnect so the litter so that the patient wouldn’t be involved in whatever was happening to the helicopter. He was very fast. Good reaction.

One of my best friends fell out of our copter as it crashed. He was under it when it rolled over, but none of us in the parking lot was aware of what had just happened. A Sheriff’s deputy ran up to one of our guys, Mark R., and yelled "Black Hawk Down."

Mark said, "Yeah, I’ve seen it. It’s a good movie."

"No, I mean it." He pointed up to the mountain. "Your Black Hawk is down."

We were certain we’d lost somebody in our crew up there, not to mention that there were climbers still in need of rescue. We flew to five hundred feet below the Hog’s Back. Mark and I made our way up to the incident. Our helicopter then came in and landed to pick up one of the survivors. That second pilot showed some cojónes to do that.

The Air National Guard flew up to haul the climbing survivors off the mountain. The Army has the same helicopter, except that ours is much heavier because of all the extra equipment needed for combat, and the extra fuel tank needed for longer flights to penetrate enemy air space.

We then hauled the bodies of the climbers who had died in the original accident out of the crevasse. We were working primarily with Portland Mountain Rescue at that point. They were in charge. We spent the rest of the day getting all of the bodies down the mountain. Many more paraescuemen showed up from the unit.

When guys heard about the crash on the news, they just started showing up to the unit, getting their climbing gear on and heading out to the flight line. The commander waived all currency requirements and the helicopters stated shuttling PJs up to the mountain. All day, as we worked, more friendly PJ faces kept arriving. The feeling of all of your buddies showing up to help on a day like that was and is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.

My friend who fell out was just bruised up. The guy is in great shape, and is just a bull, a real bad ass. It didn’t hurt that the snow under him and the helicopter was very soft. His conditioning and the soft snow together saved him. We flew him out completely immobilized thinking he had a fractured cervical spine. As it turns out, he had a simple whiplash injury, a stiff neck.

After the accident, for the next week, we took turns camping and protecting the helicopter, which we nicknamed Snowball. Then, the Army National Guard, with heavy-lift helicopters from Pendleton took Snowball off Mount Hood. It is rumored that Snowball is the same aircraft that was shot down in Afghanistan last year, killing all three pararescuemen on board.

Before that accident on Mount Hood, we had rescued hundreds who are still alive because of the work of the pilots and crews of the 304th.

Not long after that, we lost the aircraft in Portland; it had been decided prior to that accident that the active duty Air Force needed the aircraft more than we did. The helicopters and C-130s were taken away from us despite our efforts and a grass roots campaign to keep them in Portland. The Pararescue team however, would remain, sans aircraft. The PJ team remains in Portland to this day, an anomaly among air Force Rescue: the only stand alone PJ unit without organically assigned rescue aircraft.

Since losing our aircraft, the 304th has continued some involvement in local rescues. Most notably was probably the big accident on Mount Hood in 2006 when three climbers were lost after summiting in a winter storm. The one climber that was found in a snow cave, Kelly James, was spotted by one of our PJs. The same Army CH46 unit that took Snowball of Mount Hood in 2003 hoisted PJs and Crag Rats onto the summit to conduct the recovery of James’ body. James’ wife, Karen, has since written a very good account of that entire operation (Holding Fast) where she is very gracious towards our unit as well as all of those involved.

Since losing our aircraft, we’ve maintained a good working relationship with Army units as well as the Coast Guard, maintaining the 304th as a viable asset for the local community as well as for the Air Force in general.

I had been going to Mount Hood Community College. In 2003 the Vancouver Fire Department offered me a job and at the same time I was accepted to the Physician Assistant program at the University of Washington. Instead of doing either, I was deployed to Iraq. The fire department rescinded its offer. I spent five and a half months in Kuwait and Iraq.

This was very different from the first Gulf War. We started by pulling alert in Kuwait, then we leapfrogged forward, first to Talil, near Al Nasiriyah, and then on to Baghdad It wasn’t like living in the watermelon capital of Turkey. We did conduct many successful operations out of our bases in Kuwait, Talil and Baghdad.

When I returned from Iraq, the Vancouver Fire Department again offered me a job. I hadn’t expected that, but I guess I had remained on their hiring list. Instead, I took the opportunity to attend the University of Washington in Seattle and become a Physician Assistant (PA). Theirs was the second PA program in the country. Duke’s was the first.

The program started in the late 60s with Vietnam Vets. Even paramedic training was relatively new back then, so there were all of these Vietnam veterans trained as medics with no civilian job opportunities. At Duke, Eugene Stedd first approached the nursing school about helping do this kind of training, but they were developing the Nurse Practitioner model, so they declined. There were many former military corpsmen working in hospitals, so they were used as the primary candidates for the program at Duke, and then again at the U. of W.

Today people with a wide variety of medical and academic backgrounds attend PA programs. At the University of Washington, Richard Smith started the PA program with some medics from Vietnam. When explaining PA training, there is a saying: "75% of medical school in 50% of the time", and I suppose that’s as accurate an explanation as any. One big difference is the lack of residency training for PA, but this is offset by the fact that PA operate under the supervision of their physician colleagues; we are in a sense, like Permanent Residents.

I’ve learned a lot about medicine. Prior to becoming a PA, I had combat casualty training, but most people who are sick in the U.S. aren’t trauma victims. Millions of things can go wrong with the human body. As a Paramedic and Pararescueman, I was exposed to a lot, but PA school helped me understand more about why the things we do and the medicines we give work.

As a PA, you’re an extension of the doctor you work with. In medicine, you have to enjoy the learning and keep learning. That’s the way it will sustain you. As a PA you aren’t just trained to do a specific job, but rather, you are trained to keep learning, and how to do that better over the course of a lifetime. You learn how to practice medicine.

When I graduated, I moved to Prineville and learned a lot more, working in a rural clinic. Then I took a job in Aberdeen. PAs enjoy great acceptance in Aberdeen. They treat us well and I have lots of responsibility. Our hospital cares for a rural and underserved community, and I think the work we do here is important.

Of the guys in our Air Force Reserve Rescue unit, six have gone to medical school. Three of the guys have gone to PA school. One of my best friends that I flew with in Iraq became a Registered Nurse. Many guys have become firefighters and a few are policemen or federal law enforcement agents.

I’m now retired from the Air Force Reserves after nearly twenty-one years of service. I’ve been very lucky. I was fortunate to be in a place to watch a lot of cool people do a lot of cool things for others.


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