SUMTER, SC — Ask any service member, and they'll agree that it's impossible to comprehend the chaotically fluctuating and vast range of emotions experienced in combat, unless you've been there.
On Saturday, Sumterites loaded the Sumter Opera House and got a glance at that experience as they previewed an episode from one of National Geographic's newest series, "Inside Combat Rescue."
Watch the trailer
The documentary centers on the men assigned to air rescue units and their selfless displays of heroism. The episode previewed featured a team stationed in the heavily embattled Kandahar Province of Afghanistan, the birthplace of a widely despised terrorist group: The Taliban.
As guests finished seating themselves, Maj. Gen. Lawrence Wells addressed the audience, prefacing the viewing with brief descriptions of the personnel depicted in the documentary, as well as their equipment, vehicles and the functions of the units, which use their trademark HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter in their rescues. The units are referred to by their call sign, Pedro.
Wells emphasized the valor displayed and the perils faced by these rescuers, nicknamed PJs.
"Since 1991, this group of PJs, crows and Pave Hawk pilots have saved over 12,200 lives," Wells said. "The people in the show that you're going to see tonight, which is very intense, there are no actors, there are no portrayals. What you are seeing is an actual combat operation that took place in Kandahar, Afghanistan."
Wells also said, while they might not be highlighted in Saturday's presentation, the operations executed in the series involve units from South Carolina, including F-16s from Shaw Air Force Base and McEntire Joint National Guard Base, which ensure U.S. forces have air combat dominance in their rescue missions, and C-17s from Charleston Air Force Base, which move injured soldiers to Germany or the U.S.
Unlike other medical or rescue craft used by the U.S. Armed Forces, Wells said the Pave Hawks used by the PJs are specially fitted for rescue, but do not feature a red cross, a designation that signifies the vehicle has no combat purpose and should not be fired upon.
"These are combat operations," he added. "None of our helicopters that do this mission have the red cross on them. The (pararescuers) fight their way in, save lives and then fight their way out."
The lights dimmed, chatter ceased and eyes became fixed on the screen as the show began. As the episode played, viewers could not help but be entranced by the display before them.
Though it pales in comparison to a true combat experience, the show embodies and graphically depicts the chaos of war and the mental strain it imposes. The emotions depicted in the show are raw, shifting dramatically and often, each minute being drastically different from the last. Within what seemed like a five-minute lapse, the audience roared with laughter, hushed in awe and shed tears of grief.
One of the more emotionally driven scenes involved the report of a child gravely injured while playing with an M203 grenade round. While the team wanted to help the child, it was deemed unsafe for them to intervene. They could do nothing but slam their fists in frustration.
Another involved the rescue of a Special Forces soldier injured by an explosive device. While flying several hundred feet in the air, the soldier's intravenous line fell out of his arm as his rescuers worked to save him. A last-second emergency effort managed to save his life by the narrowest thread.
When the credits began to roll at the viewing's conclusion, the audience exploded into cheers and applause.
As the clapping faded, Wells returned to the stage for an important ceremony.
As he began to speak of the valor displayed by the service members featured in the viewing, 15 young men and women, their ages ranging from 17 to 24, marched up the steps and onto the platform, forming three tight rows of five.
Wells identified the youths as "courageous young men and women" who have selflessly "chosen to pursue hazardous professions within the United States Air Force." He then led the group in the Oath of Enlistment and thanked them for their dedication.
"They've all chosen such varied occupations," said Master Sgt. Kristina Barrett of AFCENT. "Combat control, pararescue, combat weather and explosive ordnance disposal ... They're all risky lines of work."
Wells ended his speech with an homage to the pararescuers and their bravery.
"Their ethos is 'These things we do, so that others may live,'" Wells said. "We will never leave behind a soldier, a sailor or a Marine. We put our lives at risk to ensure they return."
Afterwards, guests were invited to a reception next door at Sumter City Centre, where they had the opportunity to speak with Wells, the new recruits and airmen who had experienced deployment in the past few years.
Among them was Lt. Col. Joe Alkire, a Pave Hawk helicopter pilot who was assigned to a Pedro unit while in Afghanistan. Alkire said the experience was special for him in many ways.
"I know some of those guys in the documentary," he said. "I even remember the 'Leroy Jenkins' alarm that would sound when we had a call; it made me laugh."
Alkire's eyes seemed to liven, his expression portraying a complex set of emotions as he continued to speak.
"There's such a wide spectrum of emotion with extreme ups and downs when you're over there," he said. "It's tough to deal with, day in, day out. I still get chills thinking about watching the choppers leave. It's just as exciting when they return."
Alkire said he generally approves of the documentary, from what he's seen so far.
"I've only seen the one episode so far, but I liked it," he said. "I look forward to watching the action from an outside perspective and seeing how it's portrayed."
Randy Sturky, president of Security Management South Carolina, also liked what he saw at the preview.
"It was intense," Sturky said. "It's amazing how composed and compassionate these guys are as they watch over and save their brothers."
Maj. Gen. Wells was just as pleased with the event as a whole.
"We had an awesome turnout," Wells said. "I'm very pleased with the military and civilian presence, participation and enthusiasm. Sumter has always been very supportive, and I'm grateful for their support."
Reach Rob Cottingham at (803) 774-1225.
See it yourself
"Inside Combat Rescue"
When: Premiers 10 p.m. Feb. 18
Where: National Geographic Channel
Online: Show site