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Two 106th Rescue Wing Airmen Played a Role in Thai Cave Rescue

  • Published
  • By A1C Sarah McKernan
  • 106th Rescue Wing

Wearing shorts and a t-shirt, with stubble on his chin, Tech. Sgt. Jamie Brisbin, a pararescueman now assigned to the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing, remembers arriving in Okinawa, Japan and boarding a waiting C-130 to head to a flooded cave in Thailand on June 27, 2018.

As depicted in the Amazon Prime film “Thirteen Lives,” which hit the internet on July 29, a Thai soccer team, consisting of 12 boys aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach, were exploring Tham Luang Cave when monsoon rains hit and caused it to flood. The boys were trapped deep within.

At the time, Brisbin, who had just been on vacation with his family, was a pararescueman with the 31st Rescue Squadron at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.

Brisbin and Lt. Col. Stephen “Doc” Rush, a flight surgeon commanding the 106th Medical Group, were among the U.S. military personnel who helped make the dramatic rescue shown in the new movie possible.

After arriving at the mouth of the cave at 2 a.m. on June 28, along with 30 other Airmen assigned to the 353rd Special Operations Group, Brisbin asked to be taken to the farthest part of the cave accessible without diving, in order to determine the terrain being dealt with.

It immediately became evident that this was a chaotic, constantly changing situation and initially the situation did not look good, Brisbin said.

“A lot of times it’s a strong possibility that you’re doing a body recovery, you’re not doing a rescue,” Brisbin said.

But when a team of British cave divers discovered the boys 2.5 miles into the cave, things looked better, Brisbin recalled

“But finally, they found all these kids, miraculously still alive after nine days with no food, no light and contaminated water. That was a critical turning point for us,” he said.

With nine chambers between the patients and the cave exit, it would take extensive planning and focus to evacuate the children safely, he remembered.

On July 4, 2018, halfway around the world, “Doc” Rush, received a phone call from Master Sgt. Derek Anderson on the ground in Thailand. Anderson, the senior enlisted leader on the rescue mission, was calling for Rush’s input and expertise.

Rush was the highest-ranking military medical resource involved for the Americans.

He was able to tap into his vast network of medical and diving experts across the nation to help best evaluate and determine risk and strategies to rescue the children.

With input from a Pediatric Anesthesiologist who was an AF Flight Surgeon, the New York City fire department dive team commander, and his own lifetime of medical experience and intimate knowledge of Pararescue operations, Rush offered critical input in the decision path for how best to proceed medically and risk management on launching the rescue.

Most of the children could not swim and were already weakened due to lack of food and clean water. It was decided that the patients would be sedated for extraction from the cave to avoid a number of risk factors that could have proved deadly under the conditions.

Keeping the patients sedated reduced the chance of something going wrong should a child panic underwater, such as a patient’s scuba mask getting dislodged.

Plastic stretchers were also used allowing the kids to be hooked to ropes and pulleys to traverse vertical rescue type conditions throughout the labyrinth of the cave.

The Thai leadership on site wanted to know that the US supported launching the mission, Rush said.

Rush provided that assurance.

Everything had to be planned to a very high level of detail and every person knew exactly what area of the cave they were going to be working in, how they were going to get through the process, and understood their tight timelines, Brisbin recalled.

As an avid cave diver outside of the military, Brisbin was one of a very small group capable of accomplishing the task at hand.

As the pararescueman with the most cave diving expertise, Brisbin fully understood the risks the team was taking to save these children and their coach.

When the rescue unfolded, divers were stationed at the nine cave chambers which lay between life and death for the soccer team.

Brisbin was stationed between chambers two and three, near the opening of the cave.

He and Tech. Sgt. John Merchand, a fellow 31st Rescue Squadron pararescueman were in what was called “sump three.”The sump was a partially submerged narrow tunnel approximately two feet wide and between 100 and 150 feet in length, Brisbin said. Their task was to move the boys from chamber three to two through the passage, all with zero visibility.

With 13 divers stationed at the chambers within the cave, it took approximately nine hours to lead four boys per day to safety, Brisbin recalled.

Throughout the cave, over 90 divers from around the world were stationed to perform medical check-ups and resupply air tanks.

Rush’s final input for the rescue was the advice that pediatric anesthesiologists, or pediatric emergency physicians be present to meet the patients when they emerged from the cave.

They could provide advanced resuscitation capabilities if needed, Rush explained.

“I can’t emphasize enough that there are a handful of people in the world like PJs who can support a rescue like this,” Rush said.

“There is literally only one organization in the world that trains to this level as rescue specialists, that can do this totality of rescue specialized operations, and it is an honor for me to support these guys. They are amazing human beings,” he said.

After 18 days and an arduous three-day rescue extraction, all 13 team members were evacuated.

“I feel really proud that I was chosen. That my leadership thought ‘bring this guy, he’s going to help make a difference,’” Brisbin said.

I also have a lot of pride in just being a part of this community,” Brisbin added.

“I really feel a lot of pressure, on a daily basis, to live up to the standards that they set every day and I think it has made me a better person overall and it allowed me to make this difference,” he said.