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Guest opinion

Giffords: 'Angel Thunder' perfects art of rescue

Search and rescue training operation based at Davis-Monthan

The 40 American volunteer aid workers had survived the earthquake. But they were separated into five small groups, waiting to be rescued from the devastated foreign nation.

Using rudimentary tools – hand-drawn maps, signaling mirrors and large letters stomped into the dirt – the aid workers attracted the attention of U.S. Air Force helicopter crews who had been dispatched to rescue them.

The men and women were located, loaded into the choppers and taken to a central point to be evaluated for injuries. All returned home safely.

At the same time, hundreds of miles away, a team of special operators were flying at treetop level, banking around mountains and into a landing zone as they searched for a high value al-Qaeda operative. After hunting for their target, they were ambushed and took heavy casualties.

Calling back to the Air Operations Center, they needed help right away. A team of Pararescue Jumpers – dubbed PJs – were outbound in moments.

With A-10 ground attack aircraft circling overhead and F-16s keeping terrorists out of the clearing, two Pave Hawk helicopters flew in and a team of Air Force PJs secured the perimeter. Twenty minutes later, the helicopters rolled back in, the PJs deployed a smokescreen and the wounded warriors were pulled out of harm's way.

The "aid workers" were actually Air Force ROTC cadets from the University of Arizona and the special operators were real-life Army Special Forces. But they were not in a foreign nation devastated by an earthquake or under fire from insurgents in Afghanistan.

Their "rescue" was part of an international training exercise called Angel Thunder in the San Pedro River Valley of Southern Arizona. The two-week drill, based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, is part of the rigorous preparations undertaken annually by Air Force Rescue personnel.

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U.S. Air Force Maj. Brett Hartnett came up with this idea. Five years ago, he launched an exercise at Davis-Monthan to improve training and communications for rescue operations.

It helps our service members hone the skills they need to bring aid to areas devastated by natural disasters and to rescue American and coalition troops wounded in battle or downed behind enemy lines.

In the five years since its founding, Angel Thunder has grown exponentially, becoming the world's premier and largest training exercise for search and rescue operations.

Each of the federal agencies that takes part in the exercise pays its own costs. Many of the hotels in Bisbee and Douglas are booked by participants, bringing a two-week economic boost to that part of Southern Arizona.

I had the opportunity to participate in this exercise and I was amazed at the cooperation among individuals, agencies and nations that normally have little in common.

As a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a representative of a district with a large military presence, I often am told by military commanders that every service member has an important role to play. This certainly is true with Angel Thunder.

U.S. airmen work hand-in-hand with personnel from our Army, Navy and Marine Corps as well as service members and observers from Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Specialists from the State Department, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Justice Department and other U.S. and allied agencies also are integrated into these operations.

In total, more than 1,200 men and women and 51 aircraft came to Southern Arizona to learn what America's search and rescue personnel do every day. Hopefully, these skilled operators will take the lessons they learn to the battlefield.

Angel Thunder, which started April 12 and concluded April 23, was an impressive undertaking that prepares participants for a wide range of missions – but most importantly, the mission of preserving life.

This time, these "aid workers," were not in distress and these Green Berets were not under fire. But the next time, when an aid worker is in danger or service member under fire, rescue operations are likely to be faster, smoother and safer – because of what has been learned this month at Exercise Angel Thunder.

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Gabrielle Giffords represented Arizona’s 8th Congressional District from 2007 to 2012, when she resigned to focus on her recovery after being wounded in the Jan. 8, 2011 shootings. She founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, along with husband Mark Kelly, to focus on preventing gun violence.

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U.S. Air Force

An Alaska Air National Guard helicopter drops Alaska and New York Guard personnel training as part of Angel Thunder, April 15.

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