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Codifying a Legacy: Training, Learning, Preserving

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jonathan R. Sifuentes
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs

Over the white skies and snowy mountains of Switzerland, a helicopter hovers over a man trapped on the mountainside. A pararescueman is lowered to the man’s aid. 

That same day was the pararescueman’s first day of training. 

Pararescue units train regularly in simulated environments which is imperative to their mission: To rescue, recover and return American or Allied forces in times of danger or extreme duress.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mathew Hawkins, 33rd Rescue Squadron operations superintendent, received the Cheney Award April 21, 2023, for his heroic deeds during a search and rescue training exercise with a civilian company in Switzerland.

The award recipient is selected by the chief of staff of the Air Force and is given for acts of valor, extreme fortitude, or self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest, performed in connection with aircraft, but not necessarily of military nature, by an Air Force officer or enlisted member.

This exercise took place in Zermatt, Switzerland near the Matterhorn. The opportunity was intended for the 56th RQS but they couldn’t fill the position due to real-world taskings.

The intent was to train and learn techniques for aircraft operations in the most extreme environments they could access. Simultaneously they provided civil search and rescue while learning some advanced rescue techniques that could be brought back to the 33rd RQS.

Training missions like this cover many aspects needed during a real-world rescue such as low-level flying, hoisting, water operations, entering contested environments.

Hawkins is currently assigned to the 33rd Rescue Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan. He trained alongside pilot and friend U.S. Air Force Capt. Oliver Neumann, who was formally assigned to the 33rd RQS. Neumann currently flies with the 55th Rescue Squadron at Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona. 

“Hawkins had to learn techniques we don’t normally do in the Air Force but he jumped in,” Neumann said. “He did everything from hiking through waist-deep snow to climbing inside mountains to get to people. It was pretty awesome to see!”

Being capable of providing high-priority service at a moment’s notice doesn’t happen without extensive training to ensure the entire team is prepared for what’s required on a rescue mission. 

“We were on-call from the get go,” Hawkins said. “During the helicopter mountain training course, we were getting real-world civil search and rescue missions day one which was a preview of what was to come.”

Hawkins would have to adapt and learn on the fly.

The alert calls rang consistently throughout the exercise. Within that time Hawkins and his teammates saved 15 lives which provided a valuable new perspective, he said.

The 33rd Rescue Squadron at Kadena trains, plans and executes every day to ensure they have what it takes to help when someone’s life is on the line in any environment. Hawkins is currently applying methods learned from the exercise and applying it to the core mission with the 33rd RQS to improve the cohesion effectiveness of the squadron. 

“The whole experience was incredibly humbling. I'm grateful for this opportunity that wasn’t intended for me and to be in a position to help when it was needed the most,” Hawkins said. 

“When the flag goes up and people need help, we don’t struggle finding people to fill seats in the helicopter.”