I am a pararescueman (PJ) – a jack of all trades in the military. The primary mission of PJs is personnel recovery of downed aircrew. The classic instance would be a crew who has to punch out of an aircraft and are now stranded in the middle of nowhere, where no one else can get to them. We might get called up when a combat zone is too hot for conventional forces, for example. We’ll send a smaller element to parachute in behind enemy lines to rescue folks and provide medical care before extraction.
Parachuting can be terrifying at first, but it’s really one of the simpler, safer things we do as long as you address it professionally. It’s a mode of transportation, a way to get there. You learn to fly the parachute – think of it as an aircraft under your control. The first time I jumped out of a plane, my pulse had never been higher. But I improved through practice, and worked on mastering the skill, rather than coping with it. After learning how to parachute on land, we added water. We’ll throw a boat out of a plane over the middle of the ocean and then jump out to follow it with a parachute on our backs and fins on our feet. There’s no time to be scared – it’s only 30 seconds of an entire mission that could last hours or days.
More recently, the scope of my responsibilities as a PJ has expanded to include civilian rescue during natural disasters. This has been the part of the job that I love most. We were called in to help with rescues during Hurricane Harvey, which was unbelievably complex. I remember flying in by helicopter. We were based 2 hours away, and at first it didn’t seem that bad. Then we hit the wall of the storm. We started seeing people hanging out of windows, waving cloths to signal for help; people with babies, waving towels. The roads were just gone – they were now rivers, flowing with more than 5 feet of water.
We started hearing the Air Traffic Controllers on the radio, asking for help with rescues. My team sent me down from the helicopter with the hook to rescue a dad with a baby. I got down there, and the water is flowing like a river with a decent current. There is a ton of debris in it – I’m getting hit by tree branches, even mailboxes. Then I see the dad and baby, standing outside of a home on higher ground. The father takes me inside. The first floor is flooded. I looked up the stairwell, and 9 people were trapped there, waiting for rescue, including three more babies. I radioed my partner, “You’ve got to get down here, man. We’ve got a little more work to do.”
We wore baby carriers to bring the babies safely up to the helicopter. Helicopters discharge a big shock when the rescue hook hits the ground. Every time we grabbed or rode down the hook that day, we’d get an awful shock, like sticking your finger in socket. It would paralyze me for a moment, but we kept going. I would rather absorb it myself than have it shock the babies or our other patients. There was also no time to dwell on it. Our helicopter alone did over 50 hoists and rescued at least 100 people that day.
Two days later, the Cajun navy was up and running in Houston, so we moved our rescue operation to Beaumont, Texas. The Air Traffic Controllers were making emotional pleas for us to come out there, and they were right. I can only describe it as insane. At one point, I was hoisting a few young children and the helicopter started losing control. I got dropped into the water, and just focused on keeping the kids above the water line. Minutes later, I was swung into a building and then into gate. My foot got caught in the gate, and I thought I might lose it. But the pilots did a phenomenal job flying, and we ultimately got the kids out.
Looking back on my decision to become a PJ – I had no idea what I was getting into. When I chose to pursue it, I was 18 years old, a freshman in college. I was bored by school, and had a surplus of energy. I spoke with an Air Force recruiter, and actually told him I was interested in Naval Special Warfare. He said, “Nah – you don’t want to be cold and wet all the time!” I told him that I had been a lifeguard on the Jersey Shore, near where I grew up, and that I loved the water. Then he started describing pararescue. It checked all of the boxes for me. He also told me he had never had a recruit make it through training, which sealed the deal in my mind.
I found myself in a 12-week training pipeline with a drop-out rate of 85-90%. I remember the calisthenics – I had been a cross-country runner, so I was able to hang in there. We ran hauling heavy sand bags, hiked around in teams carrying big logs, and did a ton of pushups and pullups. The tough part was called water confidence, which required completing all kinds of difficult tasks in and under water for extended periods of time. We tied knots under water, floated in the pool with weight belts and no hands, got our arms and legs bound and were thrown into the water. All for 3-4 hours a day on a random cadence of increasing difficulty over many weeks. I made it through three months, but failed one task and had to start all over again in Week 1. I graduated on my second try.
There is something about suffering together in pursuit of a tough goal. My closest friends are PJs. Being part of a community matters a lot to me, especially since I grew up feeling alone at times. There aren’t many people with last names like “Kosequat” in suburban New Jersey. It clearly identified me as having Native American ancestry. My father is a member of Odawa Nation, and part of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. His family is based in Harbor Springs, Michigan, which borders reservation land and Lake Michigan. We spent every summer there, and I loved it. I always feel good when I am near a shoreline, perhaps because of my heritage. Our name has been loosely translated as “Eagle of the Water.”
I grew up a lot in the Air Force. I married my childhood sweetheart. She’s the hero in our story. I’ve been chasing her around forever. I fell in love with her in middle school, but had to wait in the wings until she turned 16 and was finally allowed to date. I had pink hair at the time and her parents said, “please – anyone but this guy!” We went to both proms together, and stayed together all the way through my service, even when we only saw each other a few times a year. We have two little kids now, and I love her parents too – I’m the world’s luckiest guy.
I wanted more time with my family, so I decided to transition out of active duty service. I took BreakLine after my friend, Nick Gesualdo (also a PJ), recommended it. After the program, I joined Palantir in a role that spans business development and technical project management. So much of what I learned in the military directly translates. My experience triaging patients is a great example. At Palantir, I’m constantly figuring out how to apply limited resources to achieve as many of our top priorities as quickly as possible, while delaying less pressing items. Our work here is operationally minded and all about accomplishing the task at hand. It’s a fast-moving, inventive, creative world, that focuses on what you produce and how you function as part of a team. It feels familiar – in a sense, it’s a lot like being a PJ.