Story by Senior Master Sgt. Denise Johnson, Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Paul Koester said he’d be a fool not to get a little nervous before jumping out of a perfectly good airplane — despite the fact he took his first jump in 1975.
“I always get a little nervous, but that’s what keeps me sharp,” Koester explained from his sidewall seat aboard a C-17 Globemaster III flying above New Zealand’s western shore.
Normally, the 39-year veteran is the pararescue functional manager for the Battlefield Airmen Branch at Pacific Air Forces on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. But during his deployment to New Zealand, Koester served as the 517th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron jumpmaster in support of Exercise Kiwi Flag, a multilateral Royal New Zealand Air Force sponsored tactical airlift exercise.
“There are a lot of people who try and teach others about what they do by learning from books and trying to relate that information, but Chief Koester walked the walk and talked the talk for almost 40 years,” said Tech. Sgt. Steve Reathel, the SERE NCO in charge for the 437th Operations Support Squadron on Joint Base Charleston, S.C. “The kind of experience he brings to the table is absolutely invaluable. He has no-kidding survived the kinds of incidents we’re trained for, so he can pass real-life lessons gleaned from experience — not just books — to other people.”
Koester, under the impression he was going to be a jet-engine mechanic, attended Air Force basic training in 1974, just eight months before the Vietnam War officially ended.
Koester said he was enamored with the pararescue, or PJ, mission from the moment the PJ recruiters showed up to the basic training class and showed his flight actual footage of a rescue mission in Vietnam where PJs rescued a downed pilot.
“There was a lot of appeal for a young man to be a PJ, with the jumping, diving and flying,” Koester said. “But they said, ‘There’s one caveat: your life expectancy’s only about 35 seconds on the ground.’ That’s the average — that’s before you end up getting whacked. But that didn’t overshadow the fact that this looked like a really exciting job to me.”
Koester spent the next year and a half in training. “In fact, we were the first pararescue class that didn’t get sent directly to Vietnam,” he said.
Koester attended jump school at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1975, and while there, he attempted his first static-line jump.
“There’s actually thousands of people doing it in that class, so it’s like, well, this must be something I’m supposed to do,” he said. “But it’s kind of weird the first time you jump out … especially when the canopy opens up.”
Koester completed five static-line jumps, got his wings and then attended several more schools before arriving at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, in November 1975 for his first assignment.
He spent four years with the 71st Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron.
“[It was] probably my best assignment because that’s the one I cut my teeth on and because we were exposed to so many different things up there, climbing and skiing and all kinds of great stuff … and it was an extremely rewarding mission,” Koester said.
Alaska proved fruitful and career-building for Koester, who tallied 75 rescues, a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics and he reached two expeditions and one summit of Mt. McKinley, setting him up for a lifetime of challenges and successes.
He changed station two more times and cross-trained to become a combat controller by the end of 1986.
He also got his first taste of freefall skydiving, something he claimed was much different than the static-line jumping he started back in 1975.
“I went to freefall school in January of 1983, something I found more terrifying than static-line jumping,” Koester said. “Now you’re up at, I think it was 14,000 feet or whatever we were, and it’s all on you — you’ve got to pull the rip cord, and there’s more involved than just a static-line chute where you just have to turn into the wind and land. You have to do a lot more and pay attention.”
Koester said things happen “a hell of a lot faster when you’re freefalling: you’re falling about 120 mph if you’re flat and stable.”
The drawdown of personnel following the end of the Vietnam War was rapidly making its way through the Air Force, one of several factors that led Koester to separate from active duty and take a civilian job in Annapolis, Md. He also finished graduate school, earning the first of two masters’ degrees. His transition to the civilian sector in 1986 would lead to an array of paths that Koester said he never would have foretold at that time. He left uniformed service with a plethora of experience and several pastimes that would continue to serve him even through today: being a father and a PJ, flying, skydiving and gunsmithing.
Koester’s job with an aviation communication company in Annapolis led him to Long Island, N.Y., on transfer. He said something happened while there “that was more than a coincidence” in 1987.
“Just by chance, I happened to be inspecting an antenna for aviation communication when I saw these two parachutes coming down,” he said. “I recognized the kind of chute right away, so I drove over to where [the jumpers] landed, and one of the guys was my [PJ] class leader from 1974.”
Koester’s previous class leader convinced him to join the New York Air National Guard. He spent the next 16 years back in uniform as a pararescueman with the 102nd Rescue Squadron at Gabresky Air National Guard Base in Long Island.
He also said he was able to do more skydiving. “I wasn’t at a team that did a lot of jumping for awhile till I got up to the Guard unit in New York, so I got back into it and developed a passion and a new hobby.”
In 1998, Koester was laid off from his civilian job and beat out 6,000 applicants for one of 20 positions as a U.S. federal air marshal.
Koester said he deployed at least five times with his Guard unit, mostly in support of the no-fly zones for Operations Northern and Southern Watch.
“We’d be there for combat search and rescue support in case [aircrews] got jammed up; but nothing of significance really happened during that time,” Koester said. “The riskiest part of the job was flying in helicopters, for the most part.”
Nothing of significance until 2001, that is.
“I happened to be up in Long Island for my week of active duty in September of 2001. We were standing in the team room … just got done with PT. I see on the television that two planes hit the trade center; when the second one hit, we knew right away we were under attack,” Koester said.
His base was only 64 miles away from the twin towers.
“We got all the medical gear and weapons together that we could. We knew we would launch on that mission, which we did,” Koester explained. “[The helicopter aircrew] flew us into the base of the trade center to drop off the command and control team that same morning. I was the only PJ onboard that two-ship of helicopters, so I got to see it when it was still burning … you know, big.”
The helicopter crew dropped the command and control team off and returned to the air national guard base with Koester for the rest of his team, “We went back and got all the rest of the PJs and flew in and spent the next 26 hours helping everybody else — just getting the last of the survivors out,” Koester said.
The search continued even as buildings continued to collapse.
“I think Chief Koester kind of embodies the motto of pararescuemen, ‘that others may live’ and that’s really what it comes down to,” Raethel said. “It takes a special caliber of individual to be able to fly into firefights in order to save others. So yes, they may have to return fire, or put themselves in harm’s way, but it’s so that others may live.”
Koester said his team rescued the last person found alive in the wreckage. The operation then turned into a recovery mission, “… and then we knew our part was done, there was nothing else we could do.”
Before 9/11, Koester said he shielded first his parents and later his wife and children from the heavy part of his job.
“But by now my kids were old enough to understand what I was doing and they fully supported it,” he said. “We still lived in Annapolis at the time, so the Pentagon was only 45 minutes away from our home.”
The proximity of the events, so close to his home and guard unit, shined a new light and gave the public and his family a new perspective on some of Koester’s military and civilian duties.
As the deployment tempo increased, Koester said eventually his family would get the gist of what he’d be doing and what to expect by what he was packing. And by 2003, he was deploying up to eight months a year as a guardsman.
“I said, ‘I may as well just come back in [active-duty Air Force] … this is foolish.’ It seemed like the right thing to do. My career field manager called me and said, ‘I can make this happen,’” Koester said. “I kept my rank and time in service when I entered active duty because we were so undermanned in the career field. Timing worked out.”
Thirty days later, Koester had orders and moved his family to Nellis Air Force Base. He got fully requalified as a PJ at the age of 48 in 2003.
He didn’t rest long at home station before hitting the deployment road again in 2005. The 50-year-old took a team of PJs on a four-month deployment to Kandahar Airfield in south Afghanistan on a combat search and recovery mission. This was to be his first deployment to Afghanistan after nearly 10 deployments under his belt.
By the end of 2006, he changed stations once again to find himself at Hurlburt Field, Fla., as the Air Force Special Operations Command pararescue functional manager.
About two years later, Koester filled a 180-day-U.S. Special Operations Command deployment in the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan. The Khyber Pass is the most northerly pass between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Koester was the first airman to fill a senior enlisted position in a new endeavor created to facilitate operations between the Afghans, Pakistanis and U.S. forces in that area.
“We were in civilian clothes, no military gear, beards … the whole thing,” Koester said. “It was a really interesting mission because we were right on the border in the Khyber Pass, the whole silk-trade route, Genghis Kahn, and 3,000 years of history.”
And as history is known to repeat itself, Koester bore witness to further violence in the infamous pass.
“There was a hell of a lot of shooting going on over there. I saw two fire bases get burned to the ground — actually watched them burn to the ground when the Taliban overran them,” Koester recalled. “It was a great deployment, though. You really felt like you made a difference because we’d do what we were doing to help the good guys.”
He returned from the Khyber Pass in January of 2010, and the following September he was reassigned to his current position at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
“My current job brought me here to New Zealand. I was managing the taskings for jumpmasters for this exercise, which is a scarce commodity nowadays because our PJ teams are so tapped out,” Koester explained. “Our career field worldwide manning is somewhere between 56 to 60 percent, so we are always undermanned.”
The career field will be shy yet one more PJ in just two years when Koester faces mandatory retirement.
“With less than two years left, I am forced to get out due to high year tenure. Most chiefs hit [it] at 30 years of service, but in my case because I did time in the Guard, it’s age-based, so by the time I hit 60 years old, I have to retire,” Koester said.
Koester’s last permanent change of station will take him back to Nellis Air Force Base.
“Sixty doesn’t seem much different than 58 to me, and granted, I am in no position to be an operator anymore, but I feel I am still in a position to contribute based on my experience and all my deployments,” Koester said. “I spend a lot of time staying in shape … I work out once every day [when at home station] and twice a day when I’m deployed or TDY. I do something different every day: swim, bike, CrossFit, kayak … I mix it up a little bit to keep it interesting.”
Koester said he doesn’t see himself letting go of his desire to stay in shape, though his life will likely become a bit quieter.
“My life will definitely slow down in the regard I won’t be traveling as much, but between the gunsmithing, skydiving, as well as my skydiving videography business, those interests will keep me active and keep life exciting,” he said. “I don’t see me sitting around fishing and watching game shows.”
But before he hangs his uniform up for the last time, Koester continues to impart the lessons he’s learned at various speaking engagements. His 39 years encompassed four wars, 650 static-line jumps, 350 freefall jumps, three C-130 Hercules engine fires, two semi-controlled helicopter crashes, summiting North America’s tallest peak twice, sweating out being in the crosshairs of a sniper in Afghanistan, flying into the towering plume of smoke from the twin towers and nearly 100 rescues just to name a few of his accomplishments.
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the people who had my back and lifted me up when I needed it and sometimes even when I didn’t,” he said. “I try never to take those lessons or people for granted. I also try to convey those messages when the opportunities arise.”
The almost-retired living legacy said he does his best to share what he can, depending on the venue and the format and the audience, but some messages are standard across the board.
“Everyone always wants to know how things have changed in 40 years. Well, that’s kind of a hard question; it would take 40 years to explain. I always tell them I really enjoyed the first 10 years because we didn’t have computers,” he said.
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