Air Force doctor attends officer training, tells story of 2005 Navy SEAL rescue

By Carl Bergquist
Air University Public Affairs

A prior enlisted Air Force pararescue jumper who headed a team in Afghanistan that rescued a wounded Navy Sea, Air, Land special-forces member attended Maxwell’s commissioned officer training Dec. 1 to Dec. 15.

Capt. Josh Appel, 306th Reserve Pararescue Jumper Squadron flight surgeon at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Ariz., said he gained a lot of information that will be useful during his military career from the Officer Training School course.

Captain Appel said he entered the service in 1992 with “the promise of a chance” to try out for the pararescue jumpers. Unlike many Air Force Specialty Codes, entry into the pararescue jumpers is not automatic, but requires extensive testing and training. He was one of only eight chosen from a pool of 64 applicants to make the program. After attending eight additional Air Force, Army and Navy courses, he became a PJ nearly two years to the day after he applied. He served as an active duty PJ from 1994 to 1999.

In 1999, he joined the Air Force Reserve so he could work on his medical degree. Since Tucson, had a Reserve PJ squadron and a medical school, it seemed like a good place to relocate, he said.

“I thought that when everything got to be too much for me, I would quit the PJs. But I loved being a PJ so much, I learned to balance the two,” Captain Appel said. “When 9/11 happened, my unit was called up. It was decided I stay in Tucson, finish my medical degree and teach other PJs.”

The captain said he graduated medical school in May 2005 and, before his internship, volunteered to go to Afghanistan.

“Having just graduated school, my nametag read, ‘Master Sergeant Josh Appel, MD.’ For a while, I was the only enlisted doctor in the Air Force,” he joked.

In late June 2005, Captain Appel and his PJ team were getting ready to leave Afghanistan when they heard that a Chinook helicopter on a rescue mission crashed and all on board were killed. That brought the team into the effort to rescue the SEALs.

“We flew night search missions trying to locate them,” he said. “It was amazing how the operation tempo changed to find these guys. They were even using Predators and satellites.”

He said one day an Afghan villager came to their air base with a note from one of the SEALs. He was Navy Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, and the note said he was the last survivor of the SEAL team.

“We now knew where he was, and we knew the Taliban was closing in on him, so both the Army and Air Force were asked to submit rescue plans,” he said. “Since it was also known he was wounded, my team was picked because of my medical training.”

Captain Appel said the rescue team flew to Petty Officer Luttrell’s location. The pilot had difficulty landing the helicopter due to the terrain. There was only a small, level clearing on the side of a mountain.

“As we approached the landing zone, I remember thinking about whether I was more nervous about being sent in or more nervous about not being sent in if we couldn’t land because we were this SEAL’s last chance,” he said. “We received the message to go in, and the nervousness washed away.”

After landing, Captain Appel got off the aircraft and soon noticed two people suspiciously approaching him from behind. He turned and trained his rifle on the larger man, who turned out to be the survivor. The petty officer was put on board the helicopter and taken to a forward air base for medical treatment.

“At that point, I was feeling like we had dodged a bullet, then we were told to go back and recover the bodies of the Chinook crew and other SEALs,” he said. “I was on the support helicopter this time which was there to draw enemy fire so the other helicopter could get to the bodies. It was a funny feeling being in that situation. I felt like something was in motion that I didn’t like.”

The captain said by July 6 they had recovered all of the bodies, and that was when the reality of the event became apparent.

“Seeing the caskets of the SEAL team members and the Chinook crew sitting on the tarmac was when the mission struck me,” he said. “It was then I realized the seriousness and the danger involved in what we did.”

Today, Captain Appel lives in Albany, N.Y., and is an emergency department resident at Albany Medical Center.

He is still in the Air Force Reserve PJs. The captain said he’s been in contact with former Petty Officer Littrell, who is doing fine, and now out of the service and applying to medical schools.

“After the rescue, I received a text message from him [Petty Officer Littrell] that just said, ‘thanks bro.’ Since then, I have talked with him at least once a month,” he said. “It’s odd though. We did the mission, and when we got to the area where the first helicopter was shot down, we could see its charred remains on the ground. I couldn’t help but wonder why we made it and they didn’t.”