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NEWS | May 6, 2021

Chaplain soars in search-and-rescue exercise

By Col. Kjäll Gopaul Headquarters Air Education and Training Command

Spiritual and physical care achieved an exciting nexus on April 21 as Chaplain (Capt.) David Massey of the 502nd Air Base Wing participated in Search-and-Rescue Exercise 2021, or SAREX 2021.   

Under the coordinated oversight of the Texas Military Department, Texas Department of Public Safety, and Texas A&M Task Force One, SAREX 2021 witnessed more than 10 federal, state, and local agencies converge on Joint Base San Antonio-Camp Bullis to improve the coordination of their Search-and-Rescue, or SAR, aviation resources during responses to natural disasters.   

As part of the hurricane-based exercise, Massey was one of more than 60 victim-actors hoisted skyward by a SAR helicopter from a scenario’s semi-submerged automobile, flooded home, or swiftwater threat. 

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Pedro J. Vargas-Lebron, Air Operations Center Search-and-Rescue director, Detachment 7, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 641st Aviation Regiment, Texas Army National Guard, coordinated the military units supporting the exercise.   

“This is a search and rescue exercise to set up our air operations center, our state operations center, and prepare ourselves for an actual event,” Vargas-Lebron explained. “This is our way of setting up for hurricane season or any flood event in the state of Texas.”   

Massey detailed his involvement as a disaster victim-actor.    

“The mission started with our team of 13 victims being staged at a building. Our exercise coordinator said that our building was simulated as being halfway underwater and that helicopters would lower a rescue swimmer on a cable to winch us up,” he said, adding that they were hoisted from challenging platforms; not just the roof, but from balconies and windows.   

“The rescue crews would have to navigate these obstacles, while we role-played distressed survivors. So, we went to the balcony and started waving frantically like we were in distress and needed rescuing,” he said. “I expected a Black Hawk helicopter, but we had civilian aircraft coming to lift us out.”  

Shortly before being hoisted up, Massey said he looked toward the approaching Department of Public Safety helicopter and thought, “Oh wow, this is real! This is how people in a panicked, distressed crisis hold on to the hope that the rescuer on the end of that line will pull them up to safety. 

“It was a humbling moment,” he said. “I recognized how crucial the teamwork is for a helicopter crew to rescue people who -- on the worst day of their lives -- need the guy on the end of that line more than anything else. It gave me an appreciation for the rescue crew’s tasks and the trauma that follows after a natural disaster or a rescue event.” 

Massey used the moment to reflect on his own profession of pastoral care.   

“After a disaster, how would I provide spiritual support to somebody that has lost a loved one, but themself survived? How would I help someone process those initial stages of grief, which are shock and anger? I considered those things, and then it was my turn to be hoisted up by the helicopter,” he said.  

“Any lingering fear left, and I accepted, ‘Okay, it’s time to go,’ Massey said. “My rescue swimmer, Chris, wrapped the harness around me. He didn’t say much, he just worked around me. I was really impressed how emotionally controlled he was like it was second nature. That level of professionalism was impressive. 

“Once we were hoisted clear of the building and about 200 feet in the air, I thought ‘Woah, this is an incredible view!  What an amazing experience,’ he said. “I was silent, it was just sensory overload, taking it all in.  I wasn’t winched up into the helicopter. We dangled about a hundred feet below the helicopter as it flew us away. Eventually, we descended into a field, Chris unhooked me, we fist-bumped, and then off he went for another iteration. After everyone in our group was rescued, we gathered in the field and a Black Hawk helicopter flew us back to the exercise starting point.”  

Massey said he had never been on a Black Hawk before, so that part of the exercise was exciting as well.   

“It is an incredibly powerful machine,” he said. “I was so surprised how effortlessly it took off and just pulled itself through the air. But even that short flight was a learning experience. When the rotors are turning, and the wind is blowing, and the noise is loud, and you can’t hear the guy next to you ... everything is new and confusing. And if you’ve never been around a military helicopter before, the first time should not be in Afghanistan or Iraq, but a lower risk training environment.” 

Massey said the vision of the Air Force Chaplain Corps is, “To care for Airmen more than anyone thinks possible.”   

“Our wing ministry is big on partnerships, and my leadership saw my participation as a great opportunity to foster relationships,” he said. “I wanted to develop a deeper understanding of the risks that our nation’s helicopter crews take when they are responding to a crisis.”   

Looking back, Massey said the exercise also helped him understand the emotions of fear and how to work through some of that in a moment of intensity and uncertainty.   

“It also helped me to think about how I would provide pastoral care in the wake of a major tragedy or a natural disaster -- for people losing their house, belongings, or loved ones and then being rescued, and the trauma that goes with that,” he said. “It forced me to think outside of my normal ministry boxes.”