By Joe Yelverton

“I’m really not that interesting,” said Brian Kile. He looked every bit the part of someone’s dad, sitting inside an Anchorage coffee shop on a Sunday morning, in his 40’s, wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants, with a roundish face and stubble on his nearly hairless head.

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His admission followed our lighthearted conversation, discussing everything from him marrying his high school sweetheart and raising a family, to his sentiments on coaching high school football—the assorted details of a seemingly ordinary life, none of it unimportant, but also not uncommon. Then he placed his coffee cup on the table, punctuating a change in his demeanor, becoming a more enigmatic version of the same man.

For a moment I wondered if his self-effacing statement might be aimed at deflecting attention, guarding a deeper truth.

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In a world where millions of people fight for morsels of attention, on social media, in conversations, in relationships—desperately seeking relevance among a plethora of self promotion—some people are so intrinsically driven that they’re content to work behind the scenes, often leading extraordinary lives that go completely unnoticed, and among those, fewer still are willing to step into harm’s way, willing to risk their own lives trying to help others, sometimes even saving lives, and sometimes paying a price for their efforts.

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A conversation in a coffee shop served as a pivotal moment, launching me into a deep study of unseen individuals, many of them who forsake the notion of self in an effort to serve others, reminding me that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts.

Seen from the communities of Delta Junction and Fairbanks, the Eastern Alaska Range dominates the southern skyline like a kingdom of imposing giants. Among them, Mt. Hayes stands like a bone-white pyramid, rising more than ten-thousand feet from the lowlands of the Tanana River Valley.

In 2011, on a morning in early April, two men were trapped by late winter weather near the summit of Hayes. Unable to descend from their position high on the mountain, they were isolated from the rest of the world. Their predicament was unknown, except to a small crew of highly trained military rescuers, alerted via a satellite beacon, emanating near 11,000 feet. Among the rescuers was Brian Kile, a veteran helicopter pilot in the Alaska Air National Guard. Performing his preflight routine, Kile prepared to fly his uniquely equipped HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter into dangerous circumstances—the same way he had done numerous other times, flying combat rescue missions into the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Before this particular mission, Kile was on the final day of a week-long alert schedule. He would have been preparing to fly home to Anchorage, excited to see his wife and kids. Instead, he braced himself for flying into white knuckle conditions, trying to help two men he had never met before.

After launching from Eielsen Air Force Base, Kile’s team flew fifty miles across uninhabited tundra, then climbed up into glacial valleys with few places to land. A cloud layer made the higher reaches difficult to access. As the team approached 7,000 feet they began to feel the full brunt of the storm, the helicopter tossing in the air like a malfunctioning carnival ride.

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Outside the cockpit windows, a foreboding scene unfolded—clouds flowing like ominous waterfalls, cascading over precipitous terrain. The indiscriminate power of mother nature.

The team needed to climb another 4,000 feet and already the conditions were making it impossible and dangerous.

A sense of dread sank into Kile’s gut, magnifying his responsibility to his entire crew. Struggling to control his helicopter, he realized it would be suicide to continue any farther, especially knowing that the men he hoped to rescue may already be dead.

Kile turned around and headed for lower ground, hoping for a break in the weather.

Pinned down below the barren summit of Mt. Hayes sat two climbers, Joel Dopson and Andy Croan, both men exhausted and hypothermic. Whiteout conditions the night before trapped them in a place where one false step meant certain death. High winds erased their ascent tracks that might have guided them down safely, leaving them disoriented. Even worse, three feet of snow fell overnight, bringing a thunder of constant avalanches and the risk of burial if they tried to descend.

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Desperate and huddled together in a tiny snow cave they dug with their ice axes, hope dwindling fast.

Two days earlier the two friends camped lower down on the mountain, waking to bright blue skies, bolstering their confidence in a quick bid for the summit. They decided to travel fast and light, leaving much of their critical gear behind. They gambled, convinced they would be back at their camp at the end of a long day.

But fate had other plans for the men, leaving them exposed to weather entirely different than they expected. Their plan unraveled in an environment that’s entirely indifferent to human concerns and desires.

“I prayed a lot,” Dopson admitted, his voice full of regret.

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Despite making some poor choices on the mountain, he was a smart man. He knew his odds of survival were slim.

“I made a goodbye video for my wife,” he said, knowing that searchers might find his body and camera.

“I told her I loved her, and I told her I was sorry.”

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Earlier in the ordeal, he and his partner debated activating a rescue beacon they brought only as an afterthought.

Dopson, a veteran fighter pilot, knew the team of men who rescue pilots shot down in combat, might soon be the same men attempting to rescue him from the side of a mountain. This weighed on him. But he also knew the beacon would make it easier for rescuers to find his and his partners bodies after they perished, limiting the exposure of search crews.

Accepting the possibility of death as much as rescue, the two climbers finally pushed the button on their beacon, knowing their families would at least have some sense of closure.

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Within just a few minutes the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) at JBER received an alert, triggering a succession of well-planned action that few people in Alaska ever witness, or even ever hear about, except those in the throes of life or death circumstances, those lucky enough to actually survive and meet their rescuers.

Unbeknownst to the two climbers, a C-130 Hercules launched from JBER in Anchorage and began flying toward Mt Hayes. About 45 minutes later the air crew was high over the eastern Alaska Range, circling above the clouds, communicating with Kile and his helicopter crew, on the North side of the range, waiting for a break in the weather.

Even through the storm, the two climbers began hearing the aircraft high above them. Dopson described the sound as “unmistakable,” a distinctive four-engine turboprop powering through repeated turns at high altitude.

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A couple of hours later Dopson heard a helicopter flying far below, also obscured in the clouds. Several more hours would pass with only intermittent sounds of either aircraft.

As the wind and weather continued, hypothermia held the two men in its grip, limiting their ability to save themselves even if conditions did improve.

After several more reconnaissance flights up to altitude, Kile flew back to Eielsen Air Force Base one last time and told his team to jettison everything that wasn’t keeping the helicopter aloft. They removed all extraneous gear, including an extra fuel pod. The crew stopped short of removing the seats only because of the time necessary to unbolt them. Desperate circumstances, even critical team members were left behind.

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Some quick calculations showed the helicopter was still too heavy for the high-altitude mission, but Kile felt a renewed sense of urgency, hearing from the C-130 crew that some clearing occurred up high.

With a lighter load they headed back towards Mt Hayes, dumping even more fuel as they got closer.

Kile worried he still didn’t have enough power to hover close to the mountain, a necessary tactic that would allow him to test various landing strategies. And he might not have enough power to take off, even if he could land. The veteran pilot had to weigh the risks of a rescue against the risk to his crew, the possibility of crashing or stranding a 30 million dollar helicopter, with zero chance of retrieving it or the crew.

The stakes were high, infinitely more dangerous than his previous combat missions.

A hole finally emerged in the clouds next to Mt. Hayes, giving the rescuers their first glimpse of the upper mountain. With new terrain to search Kile began climbing to an altitude where the helicopter’s performance was unproven.

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Four huge rotor blades twisted through the thin air, suspending a carbon fiber and aluminum airframe held together with thousands of rivets, bolts and welds. An unearthly force transmitting throughout the entire cockpit, the crew members felt an unfamiliar shaking that told them the helicopter had reached its absolute limit. The strain on a 3,000 horsepower, twin shaft power-plant, emanated an unearthly sound, as if the entire crew jumped on the back of a mythical dragon with a chain around its neck and a bit in its mouth.

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For the first time, the rescue team spotted the climbers—two lone figures in bright clothing, eclipsed by an intimidating monument of hanging glaciers and steep rock faces, topography shaped by violent forces.

A limited amount of fuel, Kile knew he needed to act fast. As he began his approach he suddenly lost his focus, his confidence eroding in the most dangerous of circumstances.

For a moment he imagined losing control and crashing the helicopter, 20,000 pounds of machinery, avionics, and men tumbling down the mile-high slope below him, exploding into pieces, the fuselage breaking apart, killing everyone on board.

The fate of the men’s souls was inextricably connected to his grip on the controls.

Major Brian Kile wasn’t a daredevil pilot. And despite being a highly trained professional rescuer, he never aspired to be a hero. He was a man with responsibilities, a leader, a husband, a father, football coach, mentor. A man with a future.

And yet, he faced an abrupt destiny that would cut his future short. One wrong decision could cost him and his crew their lives.

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As Kile struggled to control the helicopter, Dopson and Croan watched the entire ordeal from their airy position on the mountain. A pit in his stomach, Dopson felt the crushing weight of uncertainty, knowing he might never actually see his rescuers, the whole time thinking he might never get off the mountain alive.

Kile tried several approaches but kept backing off, the wind repeatedly forcing the helicopter away from the mountain. Finally, the rescuers found a spot on a ridge where a partial landing seemed possible.

As Kile guided the helicopter in, the co-pilot yelled over the radio.

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“You’re undershooting, you’re coming in too low.”

“I got it,” Kile responded. But then fear took over again, a vision of him crashing the helicopter.

He tightened his grip on the controls and backed off yet again, fuel becoming even more precious as the minutes passed.

The two climbers had no communication with the helicopter crew and could only observe, helplessly watching each perilous attempt to land. An intense fear of seeing their rescuers perish, eclipsing any fear of being abandoned on the mountain.

Kile wrestled with his demons, desperately struggling to gain control of himself as much as his aircraft. And then, finally drawing on his many years of experience, he passed the point of no return and committed to his final approach, the giant skis on the helicopter touching the side of the mountain for the first time.

A delicate balancing act, the tail of the helicopter hung precariously above a steep slope. The wind threatening to push them off of their tiny perch, Kile “pulled power” in case he had to suddenly abort.

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With the side door now fully open, the flight engineer frantically waved at the two climbers to stay back, motioning to not approach the helicopter. Kile felt uncertain if he might have to take off any second, which could have killed the climbers if they were hit with the rotor or blown off the mountain by intense prop wash. Tense moments, everything hanging in the balance.

Finally, Kile gave the “all clear” and a Pararescueman (known to most Alaskans as a PJ), climbed out of the helicopter, connected by rope to another PJ anchored inside. Within seconds, the first PJ hooked the two climbers to his harness and swiftly guided them back to the helicopter, prop-wash sending blasts of snow everywhere.

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Once inside the safety of the cabin, Dopson was nearly in tears when he looked at his partner, overwhelmed, with a thousand-mile-stare on his face, confused about what happened. Emotion overtook the two men. And yet, they were still far from safe. The helicopter overloaded, a profound risk of crashing when Kile tried to take off.

As Kile began applying full power he forced his worst fears from his mind. He was at one of the most dangerous junctures a rescue pilot will ever face. The mission was only half over.

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The wind suddenly began forcing the helicopter from the ridge, pushing Kile to react even more quickly than he anticipated, leaving him with only one option, relying on his instincts. At that moment Kile realized he had to use the wind to launch, like surfing a giant wave on the ocean. Fighting the power of the wind would have sent the helicopter plunging down the mountainside, killing everyone on board.

Relinquishing some control to the elements, Kile used that power to help him fly away, up into more stable air, where he turned the controls over to his co-pilot. His hands were stiff with pain, as stress hormones coursed throughout his entire body. The man who sees himself as, “not that interesting,” was exhausted from guiding a hair raising rescue mission.

During the entire time a C-130 crew circled high above, knowing they would need to refuel the rescue helicopter from the air, now close to burning fumes. The two different rescue teams flew together as they pumped fuel from one aircraft to the other. A nearly seamless operation.

“No other mission scared me as much as that,” Kile told me, “not even being shot at.”

As the rescue team prepared to land at Eielson Air Force Base, Kile noticed a human figure standing at the edge of the hanger. Drawing even closer to the tarmac, he realized it was a woman, a pensive expression on her face, likely the wife of one of the climbers.

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After the crew opened the doors on the helicopter, Dopson climbed out and ran towards the same woman.

“At that moment, time stopped,” Kile told me.

After many hours of intense focus, he watched as the two climbers reunited with their loved ones. A juxtaposition to the hours long drama that unfolded throughout the day.

Kile took some pride in knowing he saved a couple of lives, and perhaps even more importantly, he got his crew back home safely, giving him the only sense of accomplishment he needed. And then he went through his post-flight routine exactly like he had done countless times before.

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No celebration, no interviews, no fan-fare. Just an ordinary man doing an extraordinary job.

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Two years after first meeting Brian Kile in an Anchorage coffee shop, I spent nearly a year with the 210th and 212th rescue squadrons based at JBER, working on a grant funded project exploring the work of elite rescuers, tasked not just with combat rescue during deployment, but also civilian rescue in Alaska. I accompanied various teams on their training missions, conducted all over south-central Alaska. Forming friendships with some of the men I would come to know, my experiences with them helped inform my perspective. Most importantly, I would come to appreciate the emotional and physical costs associated with an extraordinarily stressful career.

Sitting on top of voluminous piles of gear, all used for unique training scenarios, I was often shoulder-to-shoulder in the back of a crowded helicopter, sharing an intimate space with consummate professionals, including Pararescuemen, Combat Rescue Officers and Special Mission Aviators. We would fly to specific locations, often crossing vast tracts of the Alaskan landscape, on our way to the high mountains, glaciers, and the open ocean.

During one particular mission, as we flew back from the Alaska Range, the glow of evening light shining through an otherwise dark cabin, I sat next to a veteran rescuer, a man approaching his retirement years. In many ways he exemplified the kind of stoicism I began to see in many other team members. Unlike other training missions, on this flight there was very little chatter over the radio, everyone sitting silent as the characteristic sounds of helicopter machinery churned constantly. These were moments when silence spoke volumes, about the character of the individuals I shared space with.

Flying over many miles of braided river valleys and seemingly endless forests of black spruce, it occurred to me that many of us go through our lives at odds, with our jobs, the commute, our kids, our spouse. But sitting on board a 20,000 pound rescue helicopter, next to men tasked with risking their lives to save others, life is distilled to its most simple elements. Decisions are instinctual. Movement appears choreographed. All things extraneous are stripped away. The team shares a common bond, a symbiotic relationship, each man relying on the man next to him. In many cases each knows what the other is thinking, even feeling. They share a language older and more complex than words, part of a tribe of warriors who possess an ancient kind of courage.

But there’s a cost for this courage, a darker side to helping others.

The Mt. Hayes rescue illustrates what happens when everything goes right, even in the most dire of circumstances. But for all of the happy outcomes, there’s a number of missions that don’t go as well.

As I was drinking beers one night with one of the team members, I asked if he’d tell me about one of those missions.

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The squadron received an alert associated with an aircraft emergency locator beacon, transmitting from the foothills of the Alaska Range. There was no other specific information about the pilot, or anyone else on board the small plane. After launching, the team searched for some time, finally finding the wreckage, scattered over a large area just above treeline. The closer they got the more they realized how traumatic the crash was, but they still had no idea who or how many occupants were on board.

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Once they landed they began finding airplane seats far from the impact site, the passengers still strapped in, an entire family, including children. Scattered across hundreds of feet, bodies mangled from the violence of the crash.

“I had a vision of my own son,” my friend told me.

Recounting the story, he shared just enough detail that it made me realize he was back at the crash scene, vivid memories still at the forefront in his mind.

After a long pause, I asked him, “Do you ever discuss these missions with your wife?”

“No, never,” he answered, “we compartmentalize, otherwise you can’t do the job.”

That story stuck with me, just like the details of many other stories I heard, always told with a profound sense of humility, respect, and stoicism. The experiences I had with the team helped me better understand the sacrifices rescuers make.

Civilian rescue in Alaska creates unique challenges, not just the terrain, weather, and vast distances, but the emotional aspect to doing stressful work so close to home. This illustrates the difference between combat and civilian rescue. When the 176th Wing of the Alaska Air National Guard is deployed overseas, rescuers experience stressful missions, but they arrive back into their community, comprised of team members and support personnel. Far away from their families, rescuers have some time and space to begin processing traumatic events, apart from the unique demands of family life.

In contrast, civilian rescue doesn’t necessarily afford the same kind of space to process experiences.

On this subject, a pararescueman once told me, “One minute I’m on the end of a cable trying to recover a dead man from the side of a mountain and then two hours later I’m holding my baby boy in my arms.”

In the course of my conversations with rescuers I realized that it’s difficult to reconcile discordant experiences. The central challenge being, how does one integrate the experiences related to trauma, especially in light of the fact that it’s human nature to simply ignore what’s inherently hard to deal with.

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Now I understand better, when Brian Kile told me he really wasn’t that interesting, he was referring to his life apart from professional rescue work, in some ways a life he designed to help him cope with a life full of intense challenges and near death experiences, all for the purpose of helping others.

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