U.S. Air National Guardsman Ryan Dush prepared his gear Tuesday morning as he organized an aquatic search-and-rescue mission.
In just a few hours, he was set to jump out of a helicopter and parachute into deep waters — just an average day in the life of a pararescue jumper (PJ), an elite class of airmen who could be sent anywhere in the world in a moment’s notice for a search, rescue, or recovery mission.
Mr. Dush, a 28-year-old from Mattituck, was one of more than a dozen men, some of whom also live in the area, recruited to help locate four British sailors whose 40-foot yacht went missing in the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Cod on Friday.
The group was taking over where the U.S. Coast Guard was leaving off, he said.
Mr. Dush is a member of the 106th Rescue Wing, a 40-or-so-member team stationed at Francis S. Gabreski airport in Westhampton Beach. This weekend, he and several other PJs will jump once more, demonstrating and fielding questions about their unique jobs at the Jones Beach Memorial Day air show on Saturday and Sunday.
“I definitely enjoy being there for someone in their time of need,” Mr. Dush said. “Just being there during someone else’s scariest moments, hoping you can help get them through it.”
“There are a lot of other rewards too,” he joked, alluding to the excitement accompanying each and every mission.
“We get to do so much training, you want [the opportunity] to be able to use all those skills,” he said. “You might have a mission that requires you to do a number of things and being competent in all of them is important.”
The jumpers spend about two years as students, training “just to put on the beret,” Mr. Dush explained, which starts with what he called “selection,” a 10-week program in Texas designed to weed out “wannabe” airmen from those who truly have potential, culminating with the program’s very own version of hell week, he said.
Mr. Dush was one of just six survivors in his 100-member class.
“If you make it thorough that, I’d say you’ve done pretty well,” he said.
The Pittsburgh native enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 2004, when he was 24. After completing training, he was stationed in Georgia and soon sent to combat areas in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait to assist U.S. and allied forces, where he provided medical attention on the front lines.
Among his most challenging missions, he said, was assisting and recovering five Jordanians whose vehicle had been blown up by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
“We’ll pick up other NATO forces that have been injured,” Mr. Dush said. “But there were language barriers. Only two of their men knew how to speak English.”
Additional Jordanian soldiers projectively came to the injured men’s aid, whose lives were now in the hands of unknown Americans, he said.
“There were guys grabbing you, yelling in your ear in a different foreign language,” Mr. Dush said. “They [were] actually looking out for their own men, which they were trained to do … but at the same time, we still had to perform medicine.”
When asked if he ever gets frightened on the job, Mr. Dush said, “Sometimes the hair goes up on the back of your neck. Everybody get frightened at some point.”
The idea of becoming a pararescue jumper came to him as a child when he watched a military Eco Challenge, a triathlon pitting U.S. Armed Forces units against one another. He routinely watched it with his father, who was in the Air Force at the time.
“Of course, I was rooting for the Navy SEALs,” Mr. Dush said of the more commonly known force. “The PJs started doing really well in the race at that time.”
Mr. Dush was also a member of his college swim team all four years.
“So being a rescue swimmer was on the back of my mind,” he said. “I found out PJs are also rescue swimmers, and then I heard about everything else they can do.”
When he’s not jumping from planes, Mr. Dush said he can typically be found spending time at Bailie Beach in Mattituck with high school sweetheart and now wife Jettie, 28, a teacher at William Floyd High School, and their dog, Gauge.
Click here for more information about the air show.