Florida Keys News
Saturday, April 11, 2015
Airman's story exemplifies elite instructor
Airman's story exemplifies elite instructors

Experts say Air Force Pararescueman Master Sgt. Scott Gearen fell from the sky and slammed into the Virginia dirt traveling 100 mph during what was supposed to be a routine parachute jump one dreadful day in 1987.

The plan was for the Air Force Pararescuemen and Navy SEALs to jump out of a Marine CH-46 helicopter at 13,000 feet, free fall to 3,500 feet, open their chutes and fall gently back to Earth. When Gearen reached 3,500 feet, he pulled his chute and looked up to make sure the canopy was as it should be.

At that moment, his life took a horrific turn.

Another airman above him was still in free-fall and tried, but couldn't, avoid crashing into Gearen, a Tampa native. The other airman did what Special Operations Forces are trained to do in such situations: Get into a cannonball position and hope to do as little damage as possible.

That other airman smashed into Gearen traveling roughly 135 mph, causing extensive damage to Gearen's face, head and instantly knocked him out.

The other special operations forces watched helplessly as five of Gearen's seven nylon canopy chutes collapsed and he began falling in circles, blacked-out and limp, toward what appeared to be sure death.

'Never walk again'

His comrades rushed to him on the ground and turned him on his side. Blood poured out of his mouth. He was taken to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth where it was determined he had an open skull fracture; X-rays showed his skull was in pieces. He suffered a litany of broken bones, including a crushed larynx, jaw and both eye sockets.

Gearen relayed a side note about that day, near death on the dirt.

"When you're attached to a SF (Special Forces) team or SEAL team, everybody has a skill that you cross-train on," Gearen said. "This particular week, I was teaching the group medical trauma techniques. How to stop bleeding and how to open airways. Basic stuff. One of the things in particular we practiced was how to work on somebody's throat."

The next day was the day of the fateful jump.

"The same guys were using the same life-saving skills on me that I had taught them the day before," Gearen said.

Miraculously, Gearen suffered no brain damage. He underwent 18 surgeries. One lasted 11 hours. Another lasted nine.

Most of the time he spent under the knife was spent reconstructing his face and throat. His voice today has a scratchy pitch because of all of the surgeries. It would be two months before he first left the hospital.

Most of his body was wired to heal his bones at one point or another during his recovery. He amazed his doctors.

"Two weeks after the accident I tried walking to the other bed in the hospital room, but I was hurting so bad," Gearen said. "My body was so wired up. I went in (the hospital) weighing 190 pounds and came out at 155."

A year later, he was "sorta jogging." He began lifting weights again. He had been a body builder and fitness fanatic before joining the Air Force in 1979. In fact, he credits his survival to his fitness, as well as that he hit the ground on his side.

Typical of Special Operations Forces, Gearen refused to quit. He stayed in the service.

"They told my family I was dead (initially)," Gearen said. "Then they told them I would never walk again. At that point I said, 'OK, I'm going to do this.'"

And he did. Two years after the accident, Gearen ran a seven-minute mile.

'Gut-check'

Five years after the crash, he volunteered to return to Key West as a dive instructor at the Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School on the northern tip of Fleming Key. He graduated in 1979 as the course was then a mandatory part of the Air Force pararescue training pipeline. Today, the Air Force runs its own dive school in Pensacola.

Gearen would later go on to serve as part of the training cadre in Key West for four years, from 1992 to 1995.

Gearen is typical of the instructors at the dive school. Not everyone has as a dramatic story as Gearen, but they come from some of the toughest military units in the country. By definition of the work, none are quitters.

Most are Army Special Forces, or Green Berets as they are commonly known, but elite commandos from the Air Force and Navy sometimes serve with the training cadre. The former were more common prior to the Air Force setting up its own school.

Students are mostly Green Berets as well, but the physically and mentally exhausting school lures service members across all the other branches, as well as West Point cadets and soldiers from allied nations.

The term "Special Forces" is singular to the Army and refers only to Green Berets, but it is often used erroneously to label other elite forces such as Air Force pararescuemen and Navy SEALs among others. Special operations forces is the correct term used to describe them all.

Not surprisingly, combat divers and particularly dive instructors, are a tight-knit group even among special operations forces, all of which typically operate on their own in small teams excluding traditional soldiers.

"I was the first PJ (pararescueman) instructor selected for the training cadre," Gearen said of the dive school. "There are bonds of friendship and respect that the school creates. There is such pride in being part of it. It's known for its physical and mental challenges. Everyone in the (special operations) community know what a gut check it is."

Gearen's friend, Army Special Forces Ret. Sgt. 1st Class Billy Hoopes, an instructor at the Army dive school from 1995 to 1998, said such training brings men together regardless of rank or which service branch they're in. Gearen's recovery and success at the school came to no surprise to Hoopes.

"He's one of those people that has all the right stuff," Hoopes said. "I know that's said a lot, but he has absolutely all the right ingredients to be an operator. He's physically tough and mentally sharp. And he was here at a time when there was a joint environment between the Army and Air Force. You had to be good at diplomacy. You have to work well with other branches. Gearen is one of those guys that's as close to a real-life character in a superhero movie as you're going to get."

'I got to live it'

Early next month a slew of former instructors are heading to Key West for a quiet reunion that you won't find advertised. Gearen will be among about 50 making the trip.

"The the first thing I talk about what separates a Special Forces combat diver is there's no quit in them," said current dive school commanding officer Maj. Josh Eaton. "They will not quit. I see it every class. These guys push themselves to the limit. That's really what separates them. They're already in a very specialized organization to begin with. It creates a niche within a niche. The second thing are the bonds that are formed. It's a shared hardship. Whenever you have a shared hardship and you persevere, graduate and then serve as an instructor -- that creates a bond that will last through time. Just like combat. It lasts forever."

Hoopes agreed.

"That brings us together regardless of branch," Hoopes said. "I know many (special operations forces) who've said this is the best school they've been through."

In a world where Hollywood routinely explores the exploits of Special Operations Forces, and nonfiction books line shelves doing the same, the Air Force special operations forces are often overlooked. And that's just fine with Gearen.

Pararescuemen are the Special Operations Forces who go behind enemy lines to rescue downed pilots and other injured allied forces. That could include those injured at sea, hence the mandatory dive school qualification. They are essentially emergency room doctors cross-trained to be lethal killers.

"You get in there, shut up, and do your job," Gearen said. "Your actions will speak for you. We do our jobs and we save lives. Respect comes from your peers. Not from movies or books."

Ten years after the crash, Gearen made a dangerous high-altitude, low opening jump -- HALO in military parlance -- to celebrate his survival and his recovery. Gearen is now 58. He was 41 at the time of the crash.

"Definitely, after 22 years in the Air Force, working in Key West remains a huge highlight," Gearen said. "Being an instructor you make bonds with the other guys for life. I'd do it again all over again if they let me. Most people just read about what we do. I got to live it."

Gearen is already planning for his trip back to the Southernmost City.

"I'm really looking forward to reconnecting with my buddies down there. Every time we get together we share our stories and every time they get bigger," he said laughing.

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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