A Pararescueman (PJ), who played a key role in the rescue of a boys soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand in 2018, was chosen as one of the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year.

Technical Sergeant Ken O’Brien, who is assigned to the 320th Special Tactics Squadron (320th STS) out in Kadena Air Force Base, Japan, was recognized for his leadership and medical skills during the operation.

Back in 2018, 12 Thai boys (ages ranging from 11 to 16) and their coach from a soccer academy were trapped in a cave complex that had been flooded by heavy monsoons. The boys were stranded approximately 2 miles inside the cave complex.

Sgt. O’Brien’s role in the rescue operation was as the lead medic in Chamber 3, a dry area approximately 550 yards from the entrance of the cave. From there, he would medically assess every child that the divers brought and determine whether he could continue the journey to the entrance. His position as the lead medic in Chamber 3 made him the only American to go that far inside the cave.

A depiction of the cave complex (Guardian.uk).

“It was emotionally exhausting,” said Sgt. O’Brien. “We thought maybe half would survive. We thought that if one survived, that was a success, really, because this had never happened before. Standing in the water 13 times, expecting a dead child to pop out, that was very difficult for me. [But] when they all survived, it was like, how did that just happen?”

The rescue attempt became a multinational combined operation with over 2,000 military and civilian personnel, 30 of who were American servicemembers.

It took the rescuers 18 days to successfully extract all the boys and their coach.

Speaking about the award, Sgt. O’Brien told the Gazette that “I had a really lucky year,” emphasizing, however, that he “was never the only person there. I try to remind people I had someone right next to me. I’m the representative of all those people.”

Tech Sgt. O’Brien. 

Pararescuemen are the only asset dedicated to personnel recovery (PR) in the entire Department of Defence (DoD). But they are far more than that. As world-class medics, among other things, they can operate alongside other SOF elements as teams or individual attachments. How they operate is often dictated by the type of squadron in which they are in. PJs assigned to Special Warfare Squadrons usually deploy as individual attachments to SEAL platoons, Special Forces Operation Detachment Alphas (ODAs), Marine Special Operations Teams (MSOTs) and, though less often, to Ranger platoons. On the other hand, PJs assigned to a Rescue Squadron are more often deployed as whole teams.

His advice to young servicemembers? “Surround yourself with people who are bigger, faster, smarter, stronger than you.”