MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- People from around the globe travel to Northern Japan for what some consider the best backcountry snowboarding and skiing in the world.
Many, unfortunately, underestimate the skill level needed to shred unmarked and off course areas—often getting stuck in tree wells and falling victim to snow immersion suffocation.
On Feb. 19, the worst possible situation happened when Thailand national, Vaseen, from Bangkok, made the decision to snowboard in the back woods.
“I noticed a board upside down,” said Senior Airman John Proctor, a 35th Logistics Readiness Squadron vehicle operator dispatcher. “My first thought was someone got mad and threw their snowboard. After inspecting it, it started moving and I noticed a person attached to it.”
Once Proctor saw Vaseen attached to the board, he reassured him he was safe and help was on the way. He then flagged down the rest of his group and they jumped into action, attempting to remove Vaseen as quickly as possible, all the while trying not to sink into the hole his body occupied.
The group consisted of Proctor and 35th LRS personnel Tech. Sgt. Canaan Hatcher, a quality assurance evaluator, Staff Sgts. Brent Bowes, Scot Boone and Kyle Cherry and Senior Airman John Proctor, all vehicle operator dispatchers.
“Once everyone reached him, we each grabbed a limb and pulled the guy straight out,” said Proctor. “The hole he had been stuck in had to have been four feet across and about 15 feet deep, leading straight into rocks.”
Proctor and Hatcher attributed being able to assess the situation and react with no hesitation of what they needed to do because of the Air Force’s self-aid buddy care and combat life-saver training they had to attend, making saving Vaneer second nature.
“I knew this guy needed help so I reacted; once I arrived, I provided first aid and made sure the individual was alright,” Hatcher explained.
After working as a team to make sure he was free of any noticeable injuries, both Hatcher and Proctor escorted Vaseen down the mountain. They ensured his stability and consciousness by keeping him talking.
“When we were talking, he [Vaseen] said he was upside down for so long with all of his weight on his neck; he contemplated giving up,” said Proctor. “Especially when every time he yelled out for help, snow kept falling down on top of him.”
Vaseen recalled hearing other boarders pass by. He started feeling helpless and with every cry for help, came more snow, packing him farther and farther down, crippling his hope of being rescued.
“It was getting late in the day and starting to snow again when we found Vaseen,” Hatcher recounted. “I think it's a very real possibility if no one else would have seen the board he would have died there.”
According to http://deepsnowsafety.org, 90 percent of people involved in tree well/snow suffocation hazard research experiments could not rescue themselves. If a partner is not there for immediate rescue, the skier or rider may die very quickly from suffocation—in many cases, he or she can die as quickly as someone can drown in water.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” expressed Proctor. “It made me appreciate that we went as a group and had a game plan to stick together throughout each run. We took the extra steps for safety, like making sure we head counted before we continued to the next difficult area.”
After all was said and done, Vaseen was able to go home with his friends due to the heroic efforts of Hatcher, Proctor, Cherry, Bowes and Boone.
“I would like to thank you all for saving me,” said Vaseen. “Stuck in that hole, in that helpless position was like waiting to die. That group of guys literally saved my life, and I’m so grateful for that.”
While the knowledge that he saved a man's life was reward enough, Pacific Air Forces also recognized one of the rescuers, Cherry, with the 2018 Noncommissioned Officer Association Vanguard Award, highlighting an NCO who has performed a particularly heroic act that resulted in the saving of a life. PACAF also recognized Cherry with the 2018 Air Force Sergeants Pitsenbarger Award, which is presented annually to an Air Force enlisted member who performed a heroic act and saved a life.