The Boys in the Cave: Special Forces to the Rescue

In what must be a modern day miracle, the Thai “Wild Boars” soccer team are free! All twelve boys and the coach are now in the hospital being treated for various things, but none have life-threatening injuries. An international team of rescuers, including members of the 353rd Special Operations Group from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, gathered in northern Thailand to pull them out. Their rescue is one of the most difficult operations for diversThai Navy SEALs accomplished numerous trips back and forth the the ledge the boys were stranded on. The Thai Navy SEALs announced their success on their Facebook page,

“We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave.” 

The four Thai Navy SEALs who made the dangerous dives to rescue the soccer team

Unfortunately, 38-year-old retired Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunam died last Friday delivering oxygen bottles through the cave.

United States military members are often called upon to provide assistance during disaster relief operations around the globe. Military men and women have unique skill sets and government money to accomplish search and rescue operations around the world.

While working at Air Mobility Command’s Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott Air Force Base, my West Cell teammates were called upon to deliver the National Transportation Safety Board Go-Team to Agana Guam when Korean Airlines Flight 801 crashed atop Nimitz Hill. A C-141 Starlifter delivered them to Andersen Air Force Base 17 hours after notification. The next day, I sent another C-141 to Billings Montana picking up containers to move burn victims and doctors specializing in treating burns. Why Billings Montana? The US Forest Service Smokejumper’s warehouse was there, filled with these burn victim transfer cases. The Starlifter was configured as an air ambulance, something our airlift aircraft often do, and flew four burn victims to San Antonio Texas. Three of the four victims evacuated to Texas survived.

Korean Air Flight 801 crash site. Agana Airport is to the left of the picture. DoD photo

When Hurricane Rita hit the Texas coast, President George W. Bush administration used US military assets and personnel during the rescue efforts. The Amphibious Assault Ship USS Iwo Jima became the command center for rescue efforts. Rear Admiral Joseph Kilkenny employed a battlefield procedure we used to hunt tanks and Saddam’s army for streamlining rescue operations. Admiral Kilkenny used “Killbox Procedures” to search and rescue Rita survivors. Dividing 60 nautical mile latitude/longitude squares into four 15 nautical mile killboxes, the northwest box is numbered Killbox One, the northeast box number two, and so on. Controlling the hundreds of helicopters followed established military command and  communications procedures. Renaming them “Rescue Boxes,” each 15 nautical mile box is subdivided into keypads, like on a cell phone’s dialing page. Excluding the phone’s zero numeric, nine additional boxes are laid over the 15 mile square, one through three across the top, four through six, through the center, and seven through nine across the bottom. 

When rescue forces were needed in the center of the northwest square, the helicopters were told move to Killbox One, Keypad Five. Killbox procedures were a simple way to solve the complex problem of moving rescue forces to survivors in a very unique battlefield way Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard helo pilots understood. The USS Iwo Jima and other amphibious assault ships are ideal for rescue operations. Their four-acre flight decks can handle up to ten helicopters. The Iwo Jima can make hundreds of thousands of gallons of pure water a day.  The Iwo Jima has four main operating rooms were complex medical procedures like neurosurgery can be performed by the ship’s medical staff. Work smarter, not harder.

Military forces are ideal assets for search and rescue in humanitarian situations. No one believed adapting battlefield killbox procedures to a rescue operation would work, particularly procedures we use to kill tanks and people. Killbox procedures worked perfectly in the Hurricane Rita search and rescue operations. We applaud the efforts of the Thai Navy SEALs, and all of the international military members called upon to help save the Wild Boar soccer team. 

About the author, Mark Hasara

Author of Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit, Mark Hasara is a retired US Air Force pilot with 24 year in the KC-135 airborne tanker. He is a speaker and aviation industry consultant in campaign planning and cockpit architecture. Follow his weekly newsletter “On the Nations DIME”.