The combat rescue officer (CRO) is the person who organizes and coordinates personnel recovery operations. CROs act as advocates for Personnel Recovery teams, ensuring they are properly trained and equipped, and ready to perform their functions. In certain circumstances, they deploy alongside pararescue jumpers (PJs) and Special Tactics (ST) teams and perform command and control activities.

While the Special Tactics teams do their jobs, the CRO coordinates comms to keep “eyes in the sky” and the overall command apprised of the situations unfolding in the field. Considering they receive roughly the same training as the PJs they deploy with, combat rescue officers are uniquely suited to coordinate operations with “boots on the ground.”

U.S. Air Force combat rescue officers from the 351st Special Warfare Training Squadron train with Tactical Air Control Party members, assigned to the 7th Air Operations Squadron, on calling in close air support and nine lines at a range in New Mexico, March 14, 2019. (Photo by Senior Airman Haley Phillips/U.S. Air Force)

Combat Rescue Officer or PJ? Everything But the Blood

Combat rescue officer and pararescue jumper are two distinct career paths that have overlapping values. The first major difference between PJs and CROs is that CROs are commissioned officers in the USAF, whereas PJs are enlisted men. 

The first requirement to become a CRO is a Bachelor’s degree. The first requirement to be a PJ is either a high school diploma or a Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED). Both career fields follow similar training paths: both must complete combat dive training, static-line and free-fall parachute courses, and Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training. Where they diverge is the PJ requirement for emergency medical training. 

Ensuring Lives Are Saved: The Air Force Combat Rescue Officer
U.S. Air Force pararescue Airmen conduct in-flight medical training scenarios, November 6, 2018 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. (Photo by Senior Airman Rito Smith/USAF)

PJs perform the life-saving in the field; CROs ensure they have the training and equipment to make that happen.

Civilian Combat Rescue Officers

Civilians have the opportunity to become CROs provided they meet certain requirements. According to the official application guidelines, civilians within 12 months of graduating from an accredited college can apply to become CROs via the Special Warfare Airman Program (SWAP). There are myriad requirements to be met as a civilian, including a minimum 2.5 GPA and score minimums on the Air Force Officer Qualification Test. The full requirements can be found in the Air Force’s application package.  

Civilian applications are handled on a case-by-case basis. One requirement to be a CRO is to be an officer in the USAF. Most acquisitions come either from the Air Force Academy and ROTC candidates, directly from Officer Training School, or through inter-service transfers. Civilian candidates that meet Phase II requirements must complete Officer Training School before beginning pipeline training.

Phase I

All applicants must complete Phase I, which is the application phase. Potential candidates submit an application package containing a personal narrative explaining why they want to be a CRO, and a resume showing leadership and decision-making abilities. In addition, copies of the three most recent performance reports or evaluations, and a commander’s endorsement letter explaining how they would be an asset to the battlefield are required.


For the application process, applicants must complete a physical fitness test and attach the scores to their application. The following are the PFT requirements:

The CRO Physical Ability and Stamina Test (PAST)

  • Pull-ups: maximum repetitions in two minutes/rest two minutes
  • Sit-ups: maximum repetitions in two minutes/rest two minutes
  • Push-ups: maximum repetitions in two minutes/transition/rest time of 10 minutes before run
  • Run: Three-mile timed run (no stopping) wearing PT clothes and running shoes. Thirty-minute transition time to start the swim
  • Swim: 25 meters underwater/10-minute rest time before 1,500m swim
  • Swim: 1,500m using any stroke wearing swimsuit, facemask/goggles, and fins.

Career field experts review and stratify all applications, and invite the top candidates to Hurlburt Field, FL, for Phase II, a one-week evaluation process. 

After Phase I selections, the Special Tactics assessment director will place selectees into teams and assign team leaders. Selectees are encouraged to begin team building immediately, getting to know one another via e-mail, phone calls, or any other means. Teams that have better cohesion before they arrive for Phase II have a better chance for selection.

 Phase II

Phase II is the in-person, physical portion of selection. During this portion, candidates will experience:

  • Extensive psychological testing and interviews
  • Briefing and writing skills evaluations
  • Problem solving events
  • Leadership ability evaluations
  • Ruckmarches with 50-70 lbs of weight at distances up to 12 miles
  • Running for distances up to eight 8 miles at a time
  • Calisthenics sessions of various exercises
  • Water confidence evaluations, [including]:
       Underwater swim intervals at 25 meters and 50 meters
       Mask and Snorkel recovery
       Buddy breathing
       Drown proofing
       Surface swimming
Ensuring Lives Are Saved: The Air Force Combat Rescue Officer
Pararescuemen and Combat Rescue Officers conduct training jumps from the back of a C-17 Globemaster over FS Gabreski ANG on August 30, 2016. (Photo by Staff Sergeant Christopher S. Muncy/U.S. Air National Guard)

During Phase II, candidates can be dismissed in five different ways:

  • Failing to meet minimum PT standards.
  • Medical disqualification: injuries or medical conditions that stop training.
  • Quit by Action: candidate refuses to perform action/event, and is assessed Failure to Train. Three Failures to Train equal Quit by Action.
  • Self-initiated elimination – “I quit!”
  • Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) violations: commit the crime, get kicked out. Failure to uphold standards of integrity and safety falls in this category as well.

A Combat Rescue Officer Enables Others to Save Lives
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Anthony Wood, 46th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, and Capt. Nick Morgans move a simulated casualty onto a litter during a mass casualty scenario near Kandahar, Afghanistan, December 24, 2010. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Harris/USAF)

Air Force Combat Rescue Officers fulfill an important role in the rescue community. They act as subject-matter experts in rescue operations and provide the PJ cadre with commissioned officers with similar operational skillsets. CROs coordinate with joint and combined forces and provide overall command and control of rescue forces.

CROs’ ability to plan, coordinate, manage and execute search and rescue, place them in a unique position: they maintain the ability to perform rescue operations while paving the way for those operations to occur.