Staff Sgt. Robert W. "Robbie" Bean poses in front of his MH-53J helicopter less than two hours after helping rescue a downed F-16 pilot from possible capture or worse at the hands of armed and angry Serbs.                        

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – "That others may live" reads the sign on the Pararescue, Combat Control Indoctrination Course building, part of the 342nd Training Squadron at Lackland’s Medina Training Annex. Few take notice. But to those who train in the supremely demanding and dangerous art of combat control and pararescue, it is more than a motto. It is a way of life – and sometimes death.

On May 1, 1999, Staff Sgt. Robert W. "Robbie" Bean, and his group of pararescue jumpers (know as PJs) and combat controllers (CCTs for short) landed at a remote strip near Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was their turn to stand alert in case a mission went bad during NATO’s attempt to bomb the Serbs into submission and allow ethnic Albanians to return to their homes in Kosovo.

"We got situated in the alert barracks and began checking ammo, medical gear, radios, and started going through mock scenarios," said Sergeant Bean. "There were three birds (helicopters), two MH-53Js and one MH-60G. We had two PJs plus a combat controller on each bird."

After everything was squared away, some of the younger troops drifted away for a game of "Risk" while others climbed on their cots for some sack time. Sergeant Bean, the overall PJ team leader on this deployment, hung with the more seasoned veterans and talked shop.

"I was just about to celebrate my 34th birthday, and that kind of made me the ‘old man’ on the crew," the sergeant said. "I got a late start because I didn’t join the Air Force until I was 26. I discovered I didn’t want to work in an office, so I demanded PJ school and got it. The recruiters thought I was crazy."

He, and most of the others in his bull session, hit the rack about 10 p.m. A little over four hours later, two words jarred Sergeant Bean and his compatriots out of their sleeping session – "Possible Mission!"

Word was filtering into the command center that an F-16C had crashed during a raid near the Serbian capitol of Belgrade. The pilot, code named "Hammer 34," was thought to have ejected safely and was evading on the ground. The area was not considered friendly.

"I ran to the command center and got with the lead pilot," Sergeant Bean recalled. "We began planning and got the coordinates where Hammer 34 was last seen. There was some confusion there, but we thought we had ironed it out. It took me two trips to operations to get what we needed."

Within minutes Sergeant Bean was on the ramp conferring with the other two PJ team leaders, Staff Sgts. Bill Cherry and Jeremy Hardey. The rotors on the big helicopters were already turning. As the birds clawed into the sky, PJs and CCTs were busy checking gear and getting squared away.

"Our three-bird formation crossed the Bosnia/Serbia border at extremely low level. You could see the lights on the ground blink off when they heard our rotors. I don’t know how low we were, but you had to look up to see the top of the mountains we were flying between."

There was a full moon this night, something very unfavorable when attempting invisibility. The only thing that played in the intruding trio’s favor was a heavy ground fog that coated the valleys and hid the choppers from those who would do them harm.

After only 15 minutes into the flight, Serb missile batteries turned on their radar and let go with three missiles – two Russian SA-6s and one SA-9.

"I heard the pilot over the intercom saying he saw traffic (other aircraft) at 12 o’clock. Then he shouted, ‘That’s not traffic. That’s a missile!’"

When on a mission such as this, the MH-53s usually fly with the rear ramp open so the person manning the 50 caliber machine gun has a clear field of fire. It also gave Sergeant Bean a clear view of what was coming up in an attempt to bring them down.

"Just as the pilot called ‘Break left,’ I saw the missile pass between No. 2 and No. 3 birds. It just took seconds. I don’t think the choppers following us had a chance to respond to the break call until the second missile went by. It took only seconds," he said.

When the third missile missed its mark, the intercom came to life. The pilot asked the crew in the back if they should press on. The answer was a resounding "Yes!" Someone else added, "That others may live."

More than simply a motto.

As the three helicopters neared the first set of coordinates, it became clear that Hammer 34 was not around. It was not a place to linger.

"There was some serious ground fire, but it looked like they were just throwing up a curtain," Sergeant Bean said. "They heard us, but they couldn’t see us. We headed for the second set of coordinates."

The one thing missing was direct communications with the downed pilot. It was about this time that Sergeant Bean broke out his own survival radio and began calling Hammer 34. This was a trick he had learned early in his career from an old PJ veteran of the Vietnam days – retired Senior Master Sgt. Bob LaPointe.

"In about a minute, I heard a voice. I asked if it was Hammer 34 and he answered affirmative. I told the front end I had our man and what frequency he was on."

The choppers flew over Hammer 34’s position, then the downed pilot began to vector them to his location. The big birds dropped to the ground – the MH-60 intent on picking up the prize, and the more heavily armed MH-35s were ready to lay down covering fire.

"People say when you’re under fire, seconds seem like an eternity," said Sergeant Bean. "They’re right, but it could only have been a couple of minutes."

When Hammer 34 was safely aboard the bird, it was time to head back to the coop. The sun was coming up and this was no place to be during daylight. There was, however, one problem!

"About the time we took off, I spotted a puddle on the ramp reflecting the rising sun." the sergeant said. "It turned out to be hydraulic fluid. The flight engineer checked the gauges and said, ‘We’re OK right now, but we’ll keep an eye on it.’"

The choppers might have chosen a less direct route to Tuzla had one of the birds not been leaking what amounts to life’s blood to an aircraft. The formation took some small arms fire on the way back, but no missiles. The covering F-16 Wild Weasels and A-10 attack aircraft had made their presence known. They would have baked any battery that turned on its radar.

When the helicopters landed at Tuzla, there were backslaps, high-fives, a round of thanks from Hammer 34 to all involved in the rescue and a short pause for pictures. Within minutes, Hammer 34 was on a C-130 headed back to Italy and his squadron. He said he wanted to get back in the F-16 cockpit as rapidly as possible – he had a duty to perform.

Sergeant Bean and his fellow PJs and controllers had performed theirs to the maximum. They had saved a life.

"Fifteen minutes later, the whole outcome could have been tragic," he recalled. "There was enemy within 200 or 300 yards and closing in. Hammer was taking fire and all he had was a handgun. It could have been different."

After the ground crew counted the bullet holes, they checked the hydraulic system on Sergeant Bean’s MH-35. During one of the violent maneuvers they took to avoid the missiles a seal broke. The reservoir containing the liquid was bone dry. They had just made it.

When the dust had settled, Sergeant Bean called home. His wife had been watching CNN.

"It was you, wasn’t it?" said his wife, Jenny. "Yeah," came the reply. "I knew it," she said. "I knew it!"

At the end of their conversation, she told "Robbie" of her love and how much Cailey, 3; Corey, 6; and Christina, 10; love him. She ended the conversation with a simple but profound statement, at least to a PJ. "Keep saving lives, Honey."

Sergeant Bean is teaching the indoctrination course at the PJ and CCT school … for now. But how long they can keep him is questionable. How long can someone chain an old dog that loves to hunt? How long can someone ground a PJ that has more than 480 jumps and 14 saves to his credit?

"I volunteered for this assignment, and I’ll share what I know with the next generation of PJs and CCTs," he said. "But then I want to go back to a unit. There just isn’t anything I’d rather do with my life."

On June 23, Sergeant Bean was presented the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the nation’s highest decorations for heroism during flight.

"The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Sergeant Bean reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force."

Not bad for an "old man."