"RPG at 3 o'clock!!" warned Senior Airman Jimmy Settle into his COM mic, but it was too late. The rocket-propelled grenade hit its mark, this time an American HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter carrying the men of the 212th Rescue Squadron, comprised of Alaskan Air National Guardsmen. Their mission is to rescue isolated personnel from enemy territory in all geographic and environmental conditions, hostile or friendly. That is to say, these men save lives.
But on this dark night in northern Afghanistan, it's their own lives that are endangered by the Taliban attackers on the ground just below. SrA Settle took shrapnel just above his left eye, below the helmet line, as their air unit arrived to rescue the compromised US troops. An inch another way, and he might not be here now.
Instead he's joking and smiling back at Bagram Air Field, and putting another line mark on his arm (his 7th), denoting the lives he's used up so far. "We think of ourselves as Alice in Wonderland, kind of like Cheshire Cat. Here, there, gone, invisible. We go in and get the bodies out, no matter what shape they're in, or how bad the hellfire's coming. We operate so 'that others may live', and that's our motto," Settle explains as he fingers his newly stitched wound. He'll be back with his unit immediately, ready for the next inevitable mission. The PJ's remain on 24-hour alert, 7 days a week, waiting for that next call to rescue. They're in the air within 15 minutes of any alert, and have wounded to a field hospital within an hour.
Settle recounts his story to a couple of talented NYC artists, without much thought about why they're sharing his barracks at this multi-national base for the war on terror in Afghanistan. These artists assimilate easily after the initial walls come down. Filmmaker Casey Neistat and fine-art maker Scott Campbell left New York City just a couple of days prior, and now bunk up with the men known as the "PJ's," or para-jumpers, to the constant sound of F-15s launching into the night. It's a natural fit for the rebellious artists, with the self-styled Special Forces unit, who themselves aren't afraid, or discouraged, from doing things their own way. Think "Battle Mustaches" (grown by most of the men while serving, but shaved off once home), and re-worked body bags, reinforced to lift more weight so twice as many men may be hoisted out, faster. Although neither are found in any military manual, the commanders accept both solutions as a way of dealing with war on this level. Neistat and Campbell have a habit of making their own rules, too.
Scott Campbell grew up in Louisiana, made his way west, and then started giving tattoos in the Haight section of San Francisco to a surly crowd. He had the talent, and there he gained the chops. Soon he moved to NYC, and set up a shop of his own in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He kind of backed into being an artist, without some great plan. They say art finds you, not the other way around, and Campbell always felt tattoos were his thing. It was others that decided he had an artist's touch, and soon Heath Ledger, Sting and Courtney Love were calling. Campbell shows his fine art in galleries today, but it's giving tattoos that remain his core essence. "I get to work on living beings, interacting with them, and sharing in their stories. We create something together, and then it walks out the door. In that way there's nothing permanent about tattoos, and they can't be sold on to a new owner. You have to really want it, and as a result, they always have deep personal significance."
When Casey Neistat was commissioned to make a film about an artist, he chose Campbell. "Scott's a unique artist, and he's particularly talented with body art," Neistat offers, as he explains how this project came about. "To make the film I wanted to make, I had to get Scott to a place where his art means something deeper, not just the back streets of New York, but somewhere that's on its emotional edge." And as the director of this documentary short, Neistat wanted the product itself to be a work of art, too. "Why not make art about making art?" said the creator of the renowned Neistat Brothers television series airing on HBO earlier this year, where he released his own brand of serial video art work for an appreciative, almost worshiping audience. "I thrive on story story story, and intentionally use low-fi gear to avoid tripping up the message," he explains. "Scott gets it, and goes for the same deep meaning in giving his tattoos. It's all about the story, the message, the meaning of the experience that brings value, not just the tools or the price on the tag." No wonder Neistat wanted to work with Campbell, and in a place like the active warzone of Afghanistan. They both easily meshed with the PJ's, and soon found themselves sharing personal stories and a lot of laughs; just what these troops needed to come off the emotional edge of recent events.
And the PJ's were certainly in an understandably emotional state of mind.
"Welcome to the business end of freedom," stated Combat Rescue Officer Capt Matthew Kirby (Officer in Charge), with a sobering matter-of-fact tone. "This is where the rubber meets the road, and people die defending our rights. So we dedicate ourselves to saving them when things go bad."
Neistat talked with CRO Kirby at the base in Afghanistan, and was soon discussing his film project with another leader of the PJ's, Master Sergeant Roger "Big Frog" Sparks (Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge), a 6'8" lean-mean-fighting machine. Well, more like a lean-nice-rescuing machine, to be more accurate. MSgt Sparks, like all the PJ's, is a model soldier and man in that he's incredibly talented in multiple disciplines, he's humble beyond explanation, and he's extremely effective at his work. "We all come from Alaska, near Anchorage, so extreme conditions and outdoor adventure are in our blood," Sparks expounds. "We know how to operate outdoors, in any conditions, and we thrive on it actually." Less than 10% get through basic training (they call it the "school house"), and get to wear the credentials of the Para-Rescue Squadron (think "Mayo" in Officer and a Gentlemen, but ratchet it up about 10 notches). So elite are these men, that they're considered the special forces for the Special Forces, going in to rescue the SF troops when things "get weird." Too often they do get weird these days, so the unit called Neistat and Campbell's visit "a heaven-sent distraction from the hellfire that we just went through." Waxed Sparks, "The fact that you're here right now, this is exactly what we need at this moment in time."
Reflective, often spiritual, Rog Sparks is a man who bears the burden of leading his men into fire, and back again. In spare stolen moments back at the base, he reads Hagakure, The Book of Samurai by Tsunetomo. Meaning "hidden by the leaves," Hagakure is a spiritual guide for the samurai warrior. "The samurai believed you must be willing to die to be true to your cause," Rog explains. "I like the part where it discusses total commitment, and total presence. You have to believe what you're doing is right, and worthy, to offer your full self to it. Our time is fleeting, like the leaves of fall in the title. What we do while we're here on earth has to count." Tsunetomo's commentaries where compiled around 1710, but their spiritual guidance still flows through this warrior-leader today.
"If I didn't believe in saving people, I wouldn't be here risking my life for it. Sometimes you have to answer the call," Sparks said. This is what the PJ's do. And this is what director Neistat came to Afghanistan to discover: representations of deeper meaning.
Each soldier has his own reasons for getting inked, ranging from loyalty to duty, from family to simple beauty. Jimmy Settle proudly boasts a customized Cheshire Cat in a PJ beret, in keeping with his philosophy of ephemeral presence.
"The faster we move, the lighter we are, then the more lives we can save, including our own. And I need all 9 of mine, apparently," Settle added. Big Frog Sparks reveals his children's names on his chest, and a date-time stamp on his arm. He explains, "That last mission was as close as I've been to the fire. It's had its effects on us, so I wanted to commemorate it forever."
Technical Sergeant Brandon Stuemke called his wife before adding a graceful pin-up girl to his side. "She said if she's sleeping next to this woman for the next 60 years, then she's going to have a say in what it looks like," Brandon recalls. Adding with a smile, "And she's exactly right, that's only fair!" Other men reveal their marks, and their reasons; the tattoos seem to fit the personalities of the bearers. Several men have the names of wives and children over their hearts. Technical Sergeant Leo Claunan wears a fierce lion, while Senior Airman Ted Sierocinski shows Pedro, a symbol of the PJ's of yore, with "Ass, Grass or Cash" alongside it, the latter an acknowledgment that no one rides for free.
That's evident as the men recover from the prior rescue mission, and prepare for the next. They're going right back into the same firefight, this time for several days. It's taxing work, but it's meaningful and the men know it.
Sparks puts some perspective on the visit of Neistat and Campbell. He explains, "It's a little like fate that you arrived when you did. We were just discussing ways to commemorate the hell we went through last week. And then you both just appeared here at our barracks." What does it mean? Rog ponders it for a minute, then says: "After the hellfire we just endured, maybe something like a tattoo can give a little permanence, something tangible to an otherwise brutal experience. Life is fleeting, and I've been that close this past week. I think of my family, and home, and can use some small symbol to hold on to right about now. Sure it's trivial, but sometimes the smallest things have great meaning to the individual. It helps, and enables me to get back out there. I'm going regardless, I may as well try to feel good about it." They'll carry the marks of these battles for the rest of their lives, along with the ink under their skin. It all stays with them.
Perhaps the unit's motto could be adjusted a little bit, "so that others may live, we put ourselves last in line, and are willing to die doing it." That sounds awfully close to the stuff heroes are made of, but then it was promised not to call them that, at their request. "There are a lot of heroes over here, men and women sacrificing, doing amazing things for our country with great honor and skill; they are the real heroes. We're just doing our jobs," pointed out Rog Sparks. That sounds a lot like the heroic stuff right there, but then it was promised, and these are great men, so promises must be kept. It's a matter of honor, and to the PJ's, honor is everything.
This story is dedicated to Kirby's mom, and to the men of the 212th RQS.
PJ's: Team Alaska!
To contact the PJ's, email the author at email@example.com; messages will be forwarded. The 212th RQS deserves our thanks and admiration for what they do, and how they do it. Thanks also to Capt. Beck for his assistance and insight; you're a good man Jason.