Patrick Air Force base in Cocoa Beach, Florida, is home to a very special group of operatives known as the Pararescue Jumpers, or PJ’s for short. Over winter break, the men’s swim team had the privilege to visit the base for a day and do a little training with the PJ’s.
The day began early with all of us waiting in the lobby of the hotel for the officer to come and meet with us before heading to base. Dressed uniformly in “Gators” shirts and black mesh shorts, we looked like a team. When the officer walked into the lobby, we all quieted down immediately. He briefed us on what to expect at the base and how we would need to be able to depend on each other to make it through the ‘mini training camp.’ We hopped on the bus and rode to the base. When we got off, we deposited our bags in a conference room and hurried outside, where we were told to line up in groups. We were about to be welcomed onto the base–PJ style.
The Pararescue men showed us two exercises they do regularly: pushups and flutter kicks. After they demonstrated, we had to emulate them and do the exercises as a team. The pushups and flutter kicks came in sets of 50. After the 50 were done, we would do three extra reps. After the first rep we’d yell, “TEAMWORK!” The second was dedicated to “PARARESCUE!” and finally the third was for “GATORS!” Pushups aren’t really my thing, so I was struggling early on and the day had barely begun…
When we had finished the warm up round of exercises they split us up into groups of six; each was assigned to its own exercise station. After finishing the stations, we lined up on the sidewalk to go for a run. We started down the sidewalk in two single-file lines and just kept running. While we were running through the base, the sergeant was helping us along by shouting out to a beat, just like you might have seen in any military movie. They call the shouting, ‘cadence.’ As a group, we weren’t very good at repeating what the sergeant was saying, but it helped take our minds off of the running.
Eventually we made it to the beach, where we stopped for flutter kicks. We got back up and started running along the shore. Sand was taking over my shoes at this point. We stopped again, this time to perform partner carries. We paired off and carried our partner on our shoulders down to the water and then back up the beach and then our partner did the same for us. When all the pairs had finished, we lined up in pushup position along the top of the beach and then bear crawled as a group down and into the ocean until we could no longer touch the bottom.
After crawling back out of the ocean, we continued our run down the beach. When we had finally reached a large satellite, which seemed like it was miles away when we first started on the beach, we stopped and formed a large circle. We all got down on our stomachs and put our legs on the shoulder blades of the person behind us in the circle. We essentially made a giant swimmer chain. When the sergeant told us to come up, we all had to push up and come up as one. After completing five of these team pushups, it was time for more running. Finally coming off of the beach, we made it into a parking lot and continued to a pool.
They hosed us down and we sat down at the edge of the pool. The sergeant gave us a protocol that we had to follow to enter the water. After nearly five tries we finally got into the nice, warm pool which was a welcomed reprieve from the cold, overcast weather. The main exercise that we were going to be doing was called ‘buddy breathing.’ In this exercise, we counted off in twos and each pair had a single snorkel to share. As a pair, we warily floated over to an officer, submerged our heads underwater and took turns breathing with the snorkel. Neither partner could come up for air or else the pair would be disqualified. While sharing, the officer would plug the snorkel thus taking away one of the partner’s breaths or even submerge the pair completely underwater. We had to rely on each other to follow the guidelines and make sure that the snorkel was secure and usable.
We got on a bus and rode back to the base after we finished buddy breathing. We had our final drill ahead. We walked through the headquarters to the lake out back. Lined up were five Zodiac inflatable boats with sets of oars in them. We counted off into groups and took to our boats. After setting them in the water and hopping in, we had to race each other around a light post that was about 300 meters off shore. The boat that I was in had a slow start and we were second to last before we started to turn around the post, but through coordinated effort, we ended up coming out from the turn in second. The boat ahead of us started veering off course and we eventually overtook them as we continued paddling toward the shore. My team ended up winning the race and as a reward, we got to sit down while the rest of the teams did 25 extra pushups.
After four long hours of what seemed like constant movement, the training finally came to an end. Pressed for time, we changed out of our wet clothes and headed to the dining hall. After devouring a comforting lunch atop cushiony seats, they took us on a tour around the base. We got to sit in a Pave Hawk helicopter and looked at all of the other equipment that they use on their missions. To end the day, we had a briefing where the officer talked to us about the duties of a Pararescue soldier and about the prestige of becoming a PJ.
The takeaway from our day spent on Patrick Air Force base was much more than the sore muscles from all of the exercises that we did. The most important thing learned that day was practicing teamwork and learning to rely on our teammates, no matter what the situation. We gained invaluable experience that will carry through the rest of the season and well into next year. Training with the PJ’s was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forget.