LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – "That others may live" reads
the sign on the Pararescue, Combat Control Indoctrination Course building,
part of the 342nd Training Squadron at Lackland’s Medina Training Annex.
Few take notice. But to those who train in the supremely demanding and dangerous
art of combat control and pararescue, it is more than a motto. It is a way
of life – and sometimes death.
On May 1, 1999, Staff Sgt. Robert W. "Robbie" Bean, and his group
of pararescue jumpers (know as PJs) and combat controllers (CCTs for short)
landed at a remote strip near Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was their turn
to stand alert in case a mission went bad during NATO’s attempt to bomb
the Serbs into submission and allow ethnic Albanians to return to their homes
"We got situated in the alert barracks and began checking ammo, medical
gear, radios, and started going through mock scenarios," said Sergeant Bean.
"There were three birds (helicopters), two MH-53Js and one MH-60G. We had
two PJs plus a combat controller on each bird."
After everything was squared away, some of the younger troops drifted
away for a game of "Risk" while others climbed on their cots for some sack
time. Sergeant Bean, the overall PJ team leader on this deployment, hung
with the more seasoned veterans and talked shop.
"I was just about to celebrate my 34th birthday, and that kind of
made me the ‘old man’ on the crew," the sergeant said. "I got a
late start because I didn’t join the Air Force until I was 26. I discovered
I didn’t want to work in an office, so I demanded PJ school and got
it. The recruiters thought I was crazy."
He, and most of the others in his bull session, hit the rack about
10 p.m. A little over four hours later, two words jarred Sergeant Bean and
his compatriots out of their sleeping session – "Possible
Word was filtering into the command center that an F-16C had crashed
during a raid near the Serbian capitol of Belgrade. The pilot, code named
"Hammer 34," was thought to have ejected safely and was evading on the ground.
The area was not considered friendly.
"I ran to the command center and got with the lead pilot," Sergeant
Bean recalled. "We began planning and got the coordinates where Hammer 34
was last seen. There was some confusion there, but we thought we had ironed
it out. It took me two trips to operations to get what we needed."
Within minutes Sergeant Bean was on the ramp conferring with the
other two PJ team leaders, Staff Sgts. Bill Cherry and Jeremy Hardey. The
rotors on the big helicopters were already turning. As the birds clawed into
the sky, PJs and CCTs were busy checking gear and getting squared
"Our three-bird formation crossed the Bosnia/Serbia border at extremely
low level. You could see the lights on the ground blink off when they heard
our rotors. I don’t know how low we were, but you had to look up to
see the top of the mountains we were flying between."
There was a full moon this night, something very unfavorable when
attempting invisibility. The only thing that played in the intruding trio’s
favor was a heavy ground fog that coated the valleys and hid the choppers
from those who would do them harm.
After only 15 minutes into the flight, Serb missile batteries turned
on their radar and let go with three missiles – two Russian SA-6s and
"I heard the pilot over the intercom saying he saw traffic (other
aircraft) at 12 o’clock. Then he shouted, ‘That’s not traffic.
That’s a missile!’"
When on a mission such as this, the MH-53s usually fly with the rear
ramp open so the person manning the 50 caliber machine gun has a clear field
of fire. It also gave Sergeant Bean a clear view of what was coming up in
an attempt to bring them down.
"Just as the pilot called ‘Break left,’ I saw the missile
pass between No. 2 and No. 3 birds. It just took seconds. I don’t think
the choppers following us had a chance to respond to the break call until
the second missile went by. It took only seconds," he said.
When the third missile missed its mark, the intercom came to life.
The pilot asked the crew in the back if they should press on. The answer
was a resounding "Yes!" Someone else added, "That others may live."
More than simply a motto.
As the three helicopters neared the first set of coordinates, it
became clear that Hammer 34 was not around. It was not a place to
"There was some serious ground fire, but it looked like they were
just throwing up a curtain," Sergeant Bean said. "They heard us, but they
couldn’t see us. We headed for the second set of coordinates."
The one thing missing was direct communications with the downed pilot.
It was about this time that Sergeant Bean broke out his own survival radio
and began calling Hammer 34. This was a trick he had learned early in his
career from an old PJ veteran of the Vietnam days – retired Senior Master
Sgt. Bob LaPointe.
"In about a minute, I heard a voice. I asked if it was Hammer 34
and he answered affirmative. I told the front end I had our man and what
frequency he was on."
The choppers flew over Hammer 34’s position, then the downed
pilot began to vector them to his location. The big birds dropped to the
ground – the MH-60 intent on picking up the prize, and the more heavily
armed MH-35s were ready to lay down covering fire.
"People say when you’re under fire, seconds seem like an eternity,"
said Sergeant Bean. "They’re right, but it could only have been a couple
When Hammer 34 was safely aboard the bird, it was time to head back
to the coop. The sun was coming up and this was no place to be during daylight.
There was, however, one problem!
"About the time we took off, I spotted a puddle on the ramp reflecting
the rising sun." the sergeant said. "It turned out to be hydraulic fluid.
The flight engineer checked the gauges and said, ‘We’re OK right
now, but we’ll keep an eye on it.’"
The choppers might have chosen a less direct route to Tuzla had one
of the birds not been leaking what amounts to life’s blood to an aircraft.
The formation took some small arms fire on the way back, but no missiles.
The covering F-16 Wild Weasels and A-10 attack aircraft had made their presence
known. They would have baked any battery that turned on its radar.
When the helicopters landed at Tuzla, there were backslaps, high-fives,
a round of thanks from Hammer 34 to all involved in the rescue and a short
pause for pictures. Within minutes, Hammer 34 was on a C-130 headed back
to Italy and his squadron. He said he wanted to get back in the F-16 cockpit
as rapidly as possible – he had a duty to perform.
Sergeant Bean and his fellow PJs and controllers had performed theirs
to the maximum. They had saved a life.
"Fifteen minutes later, the whole outcome could have been tragic,"
he recalled. "There was enemy within 200 or 300 yards and closing in. Hammer
was taking fire and all he had was a handgun. It could have been
After the ground crew counted the bullet holes, they checked the
hydraulic system on Sergeant Bean’s MH-35. During one of the violent
maneuvers they took to avoid the missiles a seal broke. The reservoir containing
the liquid was bone dry. They had just made it.
When the dust had settled, Sergeant Bean called home. His wife had
been watching CNN.
"It was you, wasn’t it?" said his wife, Jenny. "Yeah," came
the reply. "I knew it," she said. "I knew it!"
At the end of their conversation, she told "Robbie" of her love and
how much Cailey, 3; Corey, 6; and Christina, 10; love him. She ended the
conversation with a simple but profound statement, at least to a PJ. "Keep
saving lives, Honey."
Sergeant Bean is teaching the indoctrination course at the PJ and
CCT school … for now. But how long they can keep him is questionable.
How long can someone chain an old dog that loves to hunt? How long can someone
ground a PJ that has more than 480 jumps and 14 saves to his
"I volunteered for this assignment, and I’ll share what I know
with the next generation of PJs and CCTs," he said. "But then I want to go
back to a unit. There just isn’t anything I’d rather do with my
On June 23, Sergeant Bean was presented the Distinguished Flying
Cross, one of the nation’s highest decorations for heroism during
"The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed
by Sergeant Bean reflect great credit upon himself and the United States
Not bad for an "old man."