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PJ students learn from AF Cross recipient

  • Published
  • By Mike Joseph
  • 37th Training Wing Public Affiars
The insignia on the pararescue instructor's shirt, semicircled below a red, white and blue angel, says it all: That Others May Live. 

His job for almost 26 years in the Air Force, retired Maj. Thomas Newman has been on the other side of the line, sharing his experience and knowledge with young men trying to become part of an elite unit -- Air Force pararescue. 

A fit and trim man who looks ready for a return to active duty, Mr. Newman came back to Lackland three and a half years ago to instruct Airmen after serving in the private sector following his retirement from the Air Force. 

"It's where my heart is," he said about returning to pararescue, albeit as a government employee. "I say I've come full circle, my wife says I'm regressing." 

The circle began in 1965 when Mr. Newman was 18 years old, a high school dropout who decided to take care of his military obligation before he was drafted.
When told by a civilian career counselor at Lackland what he was going to be doing, Mr. Newman said he wanted something different from what he was being told. 

"Someone walked by and said something about jumping out of planes," Mr. Newman said. "I asked what the guy was talking about. The counselor looked back at me and told me I'd never make it, I was too skinny. That was all I needed." 

Thus began a career in pararescue that has turned into a lifetime commitment. After completing his training, Mr. Newman volunteered for active duty in Vietnam but was assigned to Guam. When that assignment was completed, he volunteered again for Vietnam and was assigned to Southeast Asia. 

Based in Thailand, his unit's area of coverage was North Vietnam and Laos. 

"It was a combat zone and I was TDY all the time," he said. "It was an exciting time, a time when I felt like I was where I wanted and needed to be." 

What followed was an act of heroism 41 years ago this weekend (May 1968) that earned then Sgt. Thomas Newman the Air Force Cross when he voluntarily descended into a hostile Vietnam jungle environment to rescue a downed Air Force pilot. 

Hampered by darkness and under enemy fire, Sergeant Newman sent the rescue helicopter to a nearby orbit for the crew's safety, and when it returned, he secured the injured pilot and protected him with his own body as they ascended to the helicopter. 

"When you're there every day, you show up for work and you're ready to do whatever is necessary when called upon because you don't know what you're going to get called in to," he said. "When you're going after someone else whose life is danger, whose life is at stake of possibly being captured and made a prisoner, the effort is worth it. 

"You're willing to take your chances to accomplish that," Mr. Newman said. "The award itself is 100 percent total accident based on what transpires over that time. I was doing what I was trained to do, what I was supposed to do. It's an honor, of course, and I feel honored." 

In addition to his Air Force Cross, Mr. Newman's name appears on the Enlisted Heroes Walk dedicated last December at the parade grounds. All basic military trainees pass over the Enlisted Heroes Walk during their graduation ceremony. 

"When I saw it (his name on the brick), it took me back a little bit," he said. "I had a sense of pride. It wasn't about my name being there, it was about the people on the walk. 

"The majority of them (walk names) are pararescuemen who I knew and worked with, and I know the quality of their service," Mr. Newman said. "Some of them aren't around anymore and I'm extremely proud just to have my name counted with them, especially when you know them and know what they did." 

But another story perhaps summarizes the job of a pararescueman. 

"We made the first night sea jump in pararescue history to a merchant marine vessel in the Pacific," Mr. Newman said. "I was looking down on this man (who had been rescued) when he became conscious. He realized that he had come very close to death. You could see the gratitude on his face, an understanding that didn't take any words. That kind of helped me realize what this job is about." 

Mr. Newman said once a person goes through pararescue there is always a bond among others in that career field, a connection that is never severed unless it is voluntarily cut. There's automatic acceptance and respect because all PJs have gone through the same things, met the same standards and in one way or another performed the mission. 

"Once a PJ, always a PJ," he said. 

The course he helps instruct at Lackland is pararescue and combat recovery officer indoctrination. It's the foundation to becoming a PJ and the first step to other required courses: combat dive, airborne parachuting, free fall, survival, paramedic and finally pararescue. It's a process that can take up to two and a half years to complete. 

"This is just a gateway," Mr. Newman said. "If they can't get through this course, they can't start training. This course prepares them for the training pipeline and the specialties once they've completed it." 

One of the concerns he had about joining the staff was whether or not what he experienced was relative in today's world. He's found that the mission, principles, environment and combat have not changed; only technology has. 

"Oh, absolutely, all the time," he said about drawing on past experiences for instruction while also being on the line with the students. "I've been blessed with being healthy because being fit was always a part of my life. 

"I'm a line instructor just like everyone else; I'm not in some little alcove," Mr. Newman said. "As long as I feel ... I'm not slowing things down, that I still have something to bring to the table that's valuable, I'll still do it." 

That means future students can continue to draw knowledge from a man who, by his actions, has indeed exemplified the pararescue motto, "That others may live."